NEW HAVEN >> Hopkins cross country runners Hannah Springhorn and Isabel Balcezak have learned that two is better than one.
The girls met in eighth grade and have spent the past five years running together, blossoming into a dynamic duo for the Hilltoppers and guiding the team to a remarkable 94-5 record during their careers.
“At big meets we’ll hear people go, ‘Oh, those are the Hopkins girls that are always up front,’” Springhorn said.
Says Balcezak: “People recognize us when we’re together.”
They will leave Hopkins as two of the best runners in program history.
A Fast Start
If it wasn’t for Balcezak’s older sister, Lucy, Isabel may never have started running.
Lucy, who is two years older and now runs for Vassar, encouraged her younger sister to train with her during the summer before Isabel’s eighth-grade year. Turned out, Isabel had a natural gift.
“I never did sports growing up,” said Balcezak, a New Haven resident. “But I just loved running.”
Springhorn’s path to cross country was a little more planned out. The Guilford resident had experience running in a few USATF races and participated in the mile in sixth grade.
The two met during the second week of preseason training, but didn’t connect until the first day of school.
“We kind of instantly became friends,” Balcezak said. “I remember her coming up to me during the first day of school in our assembly and being like, ‘Are you the other runner?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s me!’”
Both quickly discovered they were able to keep up with Lucy, who was a sophomore and the Hilltoppers’ No. 1 runner at the time. They eventually passed her and became the top two runners, posting times under 20 minutes.
“At the beginning we didn’t know what each other was capable of,” Balcezak said. “My sister beat us the first few races, and then I remember there was this one race I was sick and Hannah beat my sister for first time. We then realized we could go faster than we were going. That was when we really found each other as training partners.”
And a friendly rivalry was also born.
“They are very close, and they are very good friends,” Hopkins coach Miguel Pizarro said. “Also, I think neither one of them minds when one is better at the moment.”
Since 2010, when the Hilltoppers put together an impressive 23-1 record, Springhorn and Balcezak have finished No. 1 and No. 2 in nearly every race. Learning to share the spotlight has been a surprisingly easy task.
“In our (Fairchester Athletic Association) meets, we always basically come in first or second right together,” Balcezak said. “So we always alternate who gets first, second.”
Added Springhorn: “In the bigger meets, we realize who is going to be stronger on that particular day and we always cheer on the other person.”
The two have a unique training setup that many high school runners don’t have: the luxury of a teammate with the same ability.
“She might pull me along on a day I’m not feeling too hot,” Springhorn said. “That’s why it’s so helpful to have each other. When we do 800 repeats, it’s so much better to have that one person who is in stride with you doing the same exact things.”
Springhorn was injured for most of her sophomore season, so Balcezak was without a training partner. It was a difficult time for both.
“Running is sort of an outlet, something always to go to,” Springhorn said. “When you’re told you can’t run, that’s tough.”
A Lasting Impression
This past summer Springhorn had the opportunity to do a service trip in Kenya with the organization STRIVE. She picked up some running tips that she brought back to Hopkins.
“It was mind-opening,” Springhorn said. “You’re running down the street and you’re talking to one guy who happens to be two minutes off the world record and casually going for an eight-mile run. You’re like, ‘Wait, I’ll just go with you.’”
Balcezak said the biggest difference she noticed was Springhorn’s arm form when she returned; instead of an outward movement they are closer to her body. The two captains, who are also on the track and field team, have different running styles, but both possess speed and a natural kick.
“I tend to go out fast and hang on,” Springhorn said. “She’s a little smarter.”
Says Balcezak: “I’m a little slower. I try and stay steady and catch back up.”
Since 2010, the pair have been named All-FAA and All-New England Preparatory Schools Track Association every fall. According to Pizarro, the two are also the only girls at the school to ever run under 19 minutes for a 5K course. Both clocked in the mid-18-minute range last season.
They know they aren’t up there with some of the top individuals in the CIAC, but they do enjoy when they get to race them at the bigger invitationals. But what they have come to love the most is the team aspect.
“Our race at Canterbury, I was running and one of the girls was right behind me. People were cheering for her and I could hear her and it made me so happy just knowing that she was there and pushing herself,” Springhorn said.
As Springhorn and Balcezak have developed, their success has trickled down to their teammates. This fall the Hilltoppers are once again looking to claim the FAA title. Since joining the league in 2006, they have not lost an FAA championship race. Springhorn and Balcezak said they’d love to end their cross country season with a NEPSTA team title as well. Last season they finished in third place.
“I think they do everything right…they are very focused on the team,” Pizarro said. “They take it very seriously. They know a lot of the success is from them, but they don’t only care about somebody if they’re fast; they care about everyone.”
The two have yet to decide if they want to continue running in college, but are happy with what they have accomplished together at Hopkins.
“If I was running by myself I don’t think people would have any idea who I was,” Springhorn said. “When I’m with her, sort of seeing the two of us together, it’s something that people will remember.”