By John Leerar
Special to Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Remus Chippewa Hills coach Sally Schafer wasn’t optimistic about her team’s chances halfway through the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals on Saturday at Houseman Field.
“Things weren’t going the way I thought they had to go the first half of the day,” Schafer said. “I thought we were going to have to score in the upper 40’s to win. And even with a perfect second half of the meet, that wasn’t going to happen. It was going to be an OK day.”
When asked where she thought her team would finish at that point in time, Schafer responded, “Third or fourth.”
However, the lower-than-anticipated point total turned out to be enough, as the Warriors won the meet and their first MHSAA Finals title with 34 points. Lansing Waverly was second with 31.
Chippewa Hills did not win a single event, but scored points consistently enough to build a lead.
“We scored in six events today, which is the most we’ve ever scored in since I’ve been coaching,” Schafer said. “All of the girls came through at the end and ran consistently across the board today. We faltered a little bit, and were disappointed here and there, but when it came down to the last race, they got it done and did what they needed to do.”
The race Schafer was referring to was the 1,600 relay, the last event of the afternoon. The Warriors came into that race 10 points ahead of Waverly, the top seed for that event. Chippewa Hills had to place in the top eight to secure the championship and did so, finishing sixth in a time of 4:03.87.
Senior Megan O’Neil was a major contributor for Chippewa Hills, scoring 16 points by herself with second-place finishes in the 800 and 1,600 runs.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet that (the 1,600) was Megan O’Neil’s last race,” Schafer said. “But she’s going to go on to bigger things. I’m sure she’s very happy her high school career ended like this.”
Schafer also made sure to give credit to her entire team. “This championship still took our entire team. We had 10 girls here today who all helped us win,” she added.
Chippewa Hills finished the season unbeaten.
The LP Division 2 1,600-meter record fell at Houseman Field. Junior Karrigan Smith of St. Johns edged out the previous record of 4:51.67 in that event, running a 4:51.53 while beating the rest of the field by more than two seconds.
“It’s such a great feeling,” Smith said. “This is the first state championship in my school’s history for the girls, so it’s a really important moment for me as well as my team. I’m just so thankful to be here.
“My goal during the race was to stay behind the lead girl and kick it in the last 200 meters. I’m just happy that I could execute today, and it’s a great feeling. I had no idea I was even close to the record until my teammates informed me.”
Spring Lake also made its presence known. The sister duo of Allie and Gabriella LeRoux took first and second, respectively, in the pole vault. Allie, a senior, finished with 11 feet, 8 inches, while her freshman sister Gabriella vaulted 11-5. Junior Carlyn Arteaga won the 800, finishing in 2:16.09.
“I’m happy with my performance today,” Arteaga said. “I’m glad everything worked out. My best time before this was 2:17, so this is a PR (personal record) for me. I qualified for the 400 as well as this race, but I decided to just concentrate on the 800. I wanted to go all in on this race and it paid off. I just started running the 800 as my main event this year, so I’m very happy about how it turned out.”
Senior Brittany Casey of Zeeland East dominated the field events, winning both the shot put and discus. She threw 43-1¼ in the shot put and a 138-10 in the discus.
“I’m still in shock about today. I’m so excited about my performance,” she said. “I was especially satisfied with my discus throw, which was a personal record by about six feet.”
Other field winners include Charley Andrews of Battle Creek Harper Creek in the high jump and Gabriella Collins of Mount Morris in the long jump. Race winners include Alison Rich of Haslett in the 100 hurdles, Josie Yesmunt of DeWitt in the 100 and 200 dashes, Zoe Eby of Carleton Airport in the 400, Hannah Coverdill of Marine City in the 300 hurdles and Kaela Theut of East Grand Rapids in the 3,200 run.
PHOTOS: (Top) Remus Chippewa Hills’ Kylie Schafer runs her leg of the 3,200 relay Saturday at Grand Rapids Houseman Stadium. (Middle) Chippewa Hills celebrates its first MHSAA championship. (Head shot) Karrigan Smith, St. Johns. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
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."
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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).]