Eight-year-old Sophia Heinrich yelled "ha-yah!" and kicked a padded target Saturday during a taekwondo class at Santa Rosa Junior College.

It was the first time the Brook Hill Elementary School third-grader had ever tried martial arts. And from the look on her face, you could tell she was loving it.

"It's really fun," said the Santa Rosa resident as she caught her breath in a padded studio with 30 other girls. "It's my favorite thing so far."

Heinrich was among the nearly 500 girls who turned out for the 16th annual Girls Sports Expo, held on the junior college and Santa Rosa High School campuses.

The event offered girls 8-12 a chance to sample a variety of athletic activities, including lacrosse, tennis, swimming, hip-hop dancing and two types of martial arts.

Organizer Penny Hastings said the goal is to introduce girls to sports they may not be exposed to in grade school so they will be more likely to participate in their teens.

"Girls this age don't have a lot of sports experience," said Hastings, whose event was sponsored by the Girl Scouts. "We want to get them to try new things."

They did exactly that.

In a high school gymnasium, two dozen girls donned fencing gear and squared off amid the sound of clanging metal.

Arynn Valdez, 11, of Santa Rosa, crossed foils with Raeli Baker-March, 12, also of Santa Rosa. Valdez said she enjoyed doing some-thing that's not like soccer and basketball.

"I like it because it's not normal," said Valdez, a sixth-grader at Biella Elementary.

Out on the junior college track, girls stretched and heard pole vaulting and long-jumping instructions before taking a run at both.

Julia McCorquodale, 10, of Santa Rosa sprinted across the track before jumping into the air, landing feet first in the sand.

"It's sort of like gymnastics," said the fifth-grader at the French American Charter School.

Lacrosse, tennis and swimming were popular. Hip-hop dance drew a crowd.

Charlotte Hunter, 10, of Sonoma bumped elbows with another girl on the lacrosse field before slinging the ball in the net for a goal. She said it was like soccer with a twist.

"It's competitive," the Prestwood Elementary fifth-grader said. "The stick is kind of like your legs."

Among the most fired-up girls were those in taekwondo instructor Monica Miramontez's class. The black belt took her charges through a series of warm-up motions before showing them how to kick and punch.

The class was capped off with a demonstration from one of her helpers, 12-year-old Amy Armstrong of Santa Rosa, who broke a board in half with a kick.

"In addition to getting great exercise, this helps them become stronger women," Miramontez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com