Valpo's Politza: The new kid on the course
NEW CARLISLE -- It was understandable if Kaylie Politza felt like all the eyes at Saturday's New Prairie Invitational, particularly those watching the girls Class 4A race, were on her.
Once word got around that the 2019 Class 2A state medalist (fifth place) at Lemont (Illinois) High School was transferring to Valparaiso -- and was subsequently approved to compete by the Indiana High School Athletic Association -- a lot of people wanted to get a look at the acclaimed newcomer in her debut.
"It's been a while," said Politza, who ran in an indoor track meet March 6, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but hadn't run in a cross country race since NXR (Nike Cross Country Regionals) in December. "I was mostly excited just to be able to race because it's been so long. I really didn't have anything to lose."
Politza and her family relocated after it was determined that Illinois wasn't going to have a fall high school sports season. Cross country has since been allowed to hold dual meets but it won't have a state tournament series.
"I told the team, imagine you having to move from the school you'd been at, your junior year, to another state," Valpo coach John Arredondo said. "It's got to be rough, so welcome her to the best of your ability. There's so much more to that. (The race) was probably the most normal part of her last two weeks, oh my God, I get to race again. It's been a long time. Maybe too much (hype)."
As she blends with her new team, daily Face Times keep Politza in touch with her former team and running pals.
"It's been kind of different running without Destiny (Vargas) and Casey (Kittridge)," she said. "They're my good friends. (Vargas) is two for two (in races). From what I've heard, Lemont is doing really well. I'm so happy for them. I'm glad they're at least getting some meets."
The transition at Valpo has been a smooth one as Politza acclimates both as an athlete and a student.
"I think I've been doing pretty well with it," she said. "We're figuring things out with the move. My dad's commute is easier, my siblings are transferring in a little while. It's been awesome. It's been pretty fun. Practices are great. It's pretty rigorous, but I actually really like that. We're doing a lot of hill work, which is my favorite. It's been a pretty nice adjustment. They've made it very welcoming."
Even in an individualized sport like cross country, chemistry is important to team success.
"When she came over, I remember taking her aside when I welcomed her in," Arredondo said. "I said the running part will come, my goal is for you to fit in. We've got a great team culture that was established before me. Yeah, we're Valpo, we have talented girls, but our goal is always culture. You see it at our meets -- girls who are not running show up -- it's just a great attitude. Within a day, the girls were saying, oh, she's so nice. She was saying, oh my gosh, the girls are so nice. Right then, I think we're good. That's a tip of the cap to Valpo for that. The girls come into the program, they know they're going to be competitive. They know they have to work hard, and they might get bumped every now and then. The key is to make each other better."
On a young team, that's a particular point of emphasis.
"I told her (this race) was more about learning," Arredondo said. "This is probably the most unique course she's ever run in her life other than Terre Haute, which she ran at Nike Nationals. It's a very technical course. We had four others, it was their first time running the course. Even Cheyenne (Stock), she ran one race last year. They've got to understand there were a lot of weird parts to today. You're racing super early (7 a.m.), the temperature is super cold (40 degrees), I just want you to go out and compete and learn. We're usually leaving Valpo at 8, and we were done racing by then. We wake up early once, twice a week, but that's not a hyper competitive race like New Prairie, it's a run. Kaylie did well. As a team, we made some strides."
Aided greatly by their newcomer, Valparaiso finished fourth in the meet with 107 points, 35 behind winner Penn. Politza took second in 19:02.1, trailing only Chesterton's Bailey Ranta (18:39.9).
"I think I could've raced a lot harder," Politza said. "I wasn't really sure where I was. I think I went out way too slow. I think that kind of cost me. I was able to push it up Agony Hill a lot harder than I probably should have been able to, and that cost me in the last mile. It's my first time running here. It was an awesome course. (Races are) three miles in Illinois. It's pretty much the same, but I've got to work on that last kick a little bit. I think I learned a lot about where I am from the race, mentally and physically. I know I will be able to push myself a lot harder."