Coach Steve Zaranek started a Grosse Pointe South girls track and field program in 1980 that became both sizable and successful over its first three decades.
The near-simultaneous high school arrivals of some of the school’s top athletes of all-time then paved a track last season to the Blue Devils' first MHSAA championship.
But that title might've been just the start for this week’s Second Half High 5 team honoree.
The impressive performances of last spring – including all-MHSAA Finals records in the 1,600 and 800-meter runs by now-junior Hannah Meier – have been built upon during the first month of this season.
The finish that’s made the biggest headlines was a time of 8:59.69 in the 3,200 relay two weeks ago at Michigan State’s Spartan Invitational. That time would top the all-Finals record for that race by more than five seconds, and is just the latest from the elite Blue Devils talent tearing up the track.
“Every year we average well over 100 girls on the team – this year we have 125 girls – and we’ve always been a team that had tremendous depth,” Zaranek said. “We’ve won 18 of the last 20 Regionals on depth. But at the state meet, you must have elite runners. That’s been such a fortunate thing for us.”
The line-up starts with the Meier sisters. Grosse Pointe South edged runners-up Detroit Cass Tech and Ann Arbor Huron by four points each last season thanks in large part by Hannah’s records of 4:42.60 in the 1,600 and 2:07.37 in 800. She’s considered one of the top middle distance runners in the nation – with the Universities of Oregon, Notre Dame, Stanford, Washington, Michigan and Villanova University among those paying attention. Sister Haley Meier, also a junior this season, finished second in the 1,600 and third in the 800 at the 2011 Final, and her 1,600 time of 4:45.80 was the third-fastest in Finals history.
The Blue Devils graduated hurdler Veronica Schacht, who placed in both hurdles Finals, now runs at the University of Pittsburgh and according to Zaranek was the best hurdler in program history. But also back this season is senior Caitlin Moore – the program’s top sprinter ever who also will run on a 1,600 relay that has broken four minutes without her and went 3:53.78 to take fourth in Division 1 in 2011.
And then there are the newcomers. Sophomore Kelsie Schwartz and freshman Ersula Farrow joined the Meier sisters with top-15 individual finishes as the Blue Devils won the MHSAA Division 1 Cross Country Final in the fall, and make up the other half of the time-slashing 3,200 relay. Schwartz came from Warren Regina this school year after her family moved from St. Clair Shores to Grosse Pointe. Farrow is the latest in a speedy family line – her mother Tina (Jordan) won the mile run for Detroit Mumford at the 1980 Class A Final and then ran at Western Kentucky University. Father Erskine ran at the University of Tennessee, and older sister Christina Farrow was a senior this spring at Central Michigan University.
Without Schwartz and Ersula Farrow, the Blue Devils’ 3,200 relay still finished MHSAA runner-up last season with a time of 9:11.98.
“Kelsey got a really great start at Regina. Ersula has just gone beyond what we expected her to be,” Zaranek said. “We have run the last couple of years at the state meet really quality times, 9:09, 9:10. I knew we had the potential to shoot for that 9-minute mark, but what I really thought was that would happen at the end of the season.
“To get there when we got there at MSU was pretty special. There’s definitely the potential to run (faster) and even approach that 8:50 mark.”
Zaranek also has high postseason hopes for junior Aubryn Samaroo, whose high jump of 5-foot-6 this spring would’ve tied for third at the 2011 Final, and the Moore-anchored 400 and 800 relays among possible breakout contributors.
Grosse Pointe South will host its Division 1 Regional on May 18. All MHSAA Finals are June 2, with Division 1 at East Kentwood.
PHOTO: Grosse Pointe South's Hannah (front) and Haley Meier both finished among the top three in both the 1,600 and 800 at last season's MHSAA Division 1 Final.
Maia Perez and Gabriela Leon saw it coming.
In fact, the two 2017 East Kentwood all-staters each predicted remarkable post-high school success for each other long before graduation.
Perez was a four-year letterwinner as a soccer goalkeeper who led the Falcons to the Division 1 Semifinals as a sophomore and now plays professionally in Los Angeles. Leon, an all-state pole vaulter in high school, recently became University of Louisville's first NCAA champion in that event.
The two say the success doesn't come as a surprise to either, that part of that success can be explained because they continually pushed each other athletically at East Kentwood.
"Obviously there are a lot of good athletes at East Kentwood, and she was one of those amazing athletes," Perez said of Leon. "When she accomplished something, I wanted to do something big, too. I was all-state in soccer, she was all-state in track, and it was nice to have someone push you, even on days when you didn't feel like being pushed."
Leon credits Perez for helping her grasp the difference between toiling as an ordinary athlete and rising to an elite status as early as the ninth grade.
"When you see high-caliber athletes in the state finals, I think you see the struggles that others don't see," Leon said. "I saw what she was doing, and I learned from that. I learned, and I think she did too, that you have to work hard to be good, to achieve your goals. There is definitely mutual respect between us."
The two met as freshmen and quickly became friends. They originally had soccer in common as both played junior varsity as freshmen before Perez was promoted to varsity later that spring. The teammates began hanging out together off the field, be it at the beach or while taking the school's advanced physical education class together. By the time they were sophomores, however, it had become apparent that Perez's future – despite being a good basketball player – would remain in soccer, while Leon – who had also lettered in volleyball and cross country – narrowed her focus to track.
Both excelled after leaving East Kentwood. Leon had earned her first top-eight MHSAA Finals places as a sophomore, and as a senior placed fourth in pole vault, third in long jump and ran on the fourth-place 400 relay and third-place 1,600 relay as East Kentwood finished third in Lower Peninsula Division 1. Her high school personal records were 13 feet in pole vault and 18-11 in long jump (with a wind-aided 19-7). She broke Louisville's indoor and outdoor records in the pole vault as a sophomore and never looked back. She won the 2022 NCAA outdoor championship in June with a jump of 15-feet, one inch (4.6 meters) while becoming just the fourth collegian ever to amass three clearances over 4.6 meters.
Perez was a three-time Ottawa-Kent Conference Red soccer pick in high school who helped the Falcons in 2015 to their best postseason finish, when they lost to 1-0 in a Semifinal to eventual Division 1 champ Saline. She went on to play at University of Hartford after attracting interest from other programs including Western Michigan, Coastal Carolina and Pittsburgh. She wound up playing every minute of all 37 of her starts as a sophomore and junior while missing just 45 minutes over 19 games as a freshman. COVID-19 wiped out the program's season when Perez was a senior. Still, she is eighth on the school's all-time saves list with 206 while ranking 10th in shutouts with 12.
Following college, Perez was signed by the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. While she wasn't drafted by any NWSL club, Perez impressed coaches enough during a tryout to land a spot on the team's "Discovery List" as the youngest of three goalkeepers.
"Things have been going real well for me there," Perez said. "I feel like I've improved a ton."
While Perez credits Leon with pushing her as an athlete, she said the two didn't necessarily dwell on what they accomplished in high school. They did, however, compare notes on the similarities it took for both to succeed, both physically and mentally.
"We didn't necessarily talk about (honors) a lot," Perez said. "We both knew what each other accomplished, and I don't think we need to talk about it. But I just knew one day she would be really good in track."
Leon said the trait which stuck out about Perez in high school was her competitive drive. She hated to lose, Leon said.
"She was always a very impressive athlete," Leon noted. "She always had (success) in her because she was a real hard worker. Going into high school you could see her work ethic. We had a mutual friendship, and I saw what a work ethic and being humble could do for you."
As for herself, Leon, like many athletes, explored playing many sports. But she always came back to track.
"I always wanted to be the best athlete I could be," she said. "I was never just satisfied with just doing something. I always had this deep desire to perform to the best of my ability."
Perez remembers the first sport which interested her was skateboarding. In fact, the first time Perez met then-East Kentwood coach John Conlon, she told him she was only marginally interested in soccer. Conlon, who led East Kentwood’s girls and boys programs to a combined 654 wins and the boys varsity to five Division 1 championships, quickly made a convert of Perez.
"It's funny how things work out," Perez said. "I was looking for something that I could really be a part of, and now it's my job and I'm so happy I can say I'm getting paid for something I really like."
2021-22 Made in Michigan
Aug. 3: 3-Time Finals Champ Cherishes Memories, Considering Golf Future - Read
Aug. 1: Lessons Learned on Track Have Jibowu's Business Surging to Quick Success - Read
July 28: Running Set Life's Stage for Grosse Pointe South's Record-Setting Meier Sisters - Read
July 25: 2005 Miss Basketball DeHaan Cherishing Newest Title: 1st-Time Mom - Read
July 21: Championship Memories Still Resonate with St. Thomas Star Lillard - Read
July 14: Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
July 12: Coaching Couple Passing On Knowledge, Providing Opportunities for Frankfort Wrestlers - Read
June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read
PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from left, Gabriela Leon competes for the East Kentwood and University of Louisville track & field teams, and Maia Perez plays soccer for East Kentwood and trains for the NWSL's Angel City FC. (Middle) Leon holds up her NCAA championship trophy in June. (Below) Perez is one of three keepers for Angel City FC. [Photos courtesy of East Kentwood's athletic department (2017 soccer), Run Michigan (2017 track & field), the Louisville athletic department (2022 track & field) and Will Navarro/Angel City FC (2022 soccer).]