Given the choice, the best distance runner in Delaware high school history would rather run a relay.
Haley Pierce may have had the most impressive year of any high school-age female track athlete in America, but her favorite moments are anchoring championship relays for Tatnall.
“It’s so much more rewarding to share an experience with other people,” said Pierce, named the state’s outstanding track athlete after a spring where she was the nation’s second fastest in the 1,600 and 3,200, and led the Hornets to the best U.S. times in two relays.
She, Reagan Anderson, Lindsay Voltz and Julie Williams took Tatnall’s distance medley to a Penn Relays record and national best, 11:28.86. Entering the relay meant abandoning defense of the individual 3,000-meter championship that Pierce won in an electrifying kick as a junior.
The decision wasn’t hard. “Without my teammates, I couldn’t accomplish a lot of things. When you run a relay and go through something with other people, you have a special bond.”
Last week, she, Anderson, Williams and Rebecca Salter won the four-mile relay at the New Balance Nationals in 20:02.90, the third fastest high school time in history. Indoors, the same foursome won the same meet in the nation’s second fastest time ever.
Without the baton, Pierce lowered Vicki Huber’s 26-year-old 1,600-meter record by 10 seconds to 4:41.19, and Juliet Bottoff’s 3,200 mark by 16 seconds to 10:11.8. She did likewise indoors, leaving forbidding standards of 4:46.93 and 10:23.24, plus post-season times of 10:14.54 in Seattle in the 3,000 and 16:31.85 in a New York 5,000, where she set the national record.
“She’s always driving to run at a higher level. She thrives when it’s time to turn a gear when she’s really exhausted,” says Tatnall coach Patrick Castagno. “She is meticulous about her training, whether she’s on vacation, in 100-degree weather, or by herself.”
“Haley is the person we all strive to be in practice,” said boys 3,200 record-holder and fellow Tatnall student Sam Parsons, who joined Pierce as Gatorade’s Delaware track athletes of the year
“Even though we’re the same age, she’s such a role model,” says quarter-miler Maggie Nemecz.
Castagno noticed Pierce’s special stride in middle school. She ran junior varsity in eighth-grade, then burst into prominence in ninth-grade, as the state’s second best runner behind Bottorff.
She has won 17 state titles and set 11 Delaware records, but is especially proud of running outside her specialty, on mile relays that won four county or state championships.
Castagno’s careful training methods – “quality, not quantity,” says Pierce – maintained her excellence throughout adolescence growth. Pierce’s tenacity helped her spectacular rebound from tendinitis last fall. Unable to run in September, she finished second in the Nike cross country nationals 10 weeks later. “I think every athlete has to go through a phase like that.”
Pierce, headed for Georgetown, has become a skilled tactician, whose strategy varies with each race. “I’ve learned that you have to go with your instincts. As much as you can think about it and prepare, you’ve got to go with what your gut is telling you.”
Like the crowds at the Penn Relays, local runners have embraced Pierce.
“This state is amazing,” she said. “It’s such a small community. In Delaware, everyone is so supportive of one another. I still get texts from people from other schools, congratulating or wishing me luck.”