By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
There’s a clear difference between prediction and expectation. But the Ithaca girls track & field team had to decide which way coach Gene Lebron was leaning when he told his athletes they’d win an MHSAA championship this spring.
Lebron had called his cross country team’s 2014 championship as well – and that gave this spring’s Yellowjackets plenty of faith in their coach’s fearless forecast.
Ithaca’s girls track & field team – the Applebee’s Team of the Month for May – dominated its Tri-Valley Conference West competition at last month’s league meet and also won its Division 3 Regional for the second straight year – and second time total in program history.
and it’s impossible to overlook what the Yellowjackets then accomplished four days after May ended – win the first MHSAA Finals championship in program history, scoring 57½ points to edge Adrian Madison by 3½ at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 meet at Comstock Park.
“This group of seniors, we accomplished a lot together and we set our goals high,” said Sheahan, who repeated as LP Division 3 long jump champion. “Coach told us this would be the year, and we stuck to it and did the best we could to make it happen.”
At the MHSAA postseason level, that first step came at the May 20 Regional at Shepherd, which Ithaca won by 52 points over the runner-up Bluejays. The Yellowjackets then won their league meet on May 25 with 215 points, doubling up the field while finishing first in seven individual races, two field events and all four relays.
Ithaca also started May with a 12½-point win at the Shepherd Invitational over Cadillac, which went on to tie for 17th in LP Division 2 this month, and third-place Fowler, which won the LP Division 4 championship. Ithaca also won the Division 3 portion of the Alma College Scottie Classic on May 14.
By the end of this season, Ithaca had broken school records in every relay, long jump, the 200, 800, 1,600 and 300 hurdles. Lebron said the relay records might not be approached for some time.
“Those records were already set really high, and these girls really performed at a high level this year,” Lebron said. “They really took a stride.They fed off that (2014) championship in cross country. We sent 10 girls to the MHSAA state meet, and six of those girls ran at the (cross country) state meet when we won. When we won in 2014 in cross country, we came back that track season and placed fourth. They kinda knew the writing was on the wall.
"They were disappointed with the state meet in cross country this year; they finished fifth and I thought they should’ve been higher, and they did too. They felt they let one get away, but they came in more motivated than ever for track.”
Sheahan was the only Ithaca girl to win a Finals championship. But she also won the 100 and 200 at the Regional, where junior Courtney Allen won the 800, junior Emily Foster won the 300 hurdles, and some combination of Sheahan, Foster, Allen, Mikayla Fairchild, Kara Kindel, Morgan Most, Blaire Showers, Amelia Freestone, Kurstin Kalisek and Alyssa Mankey won all four relays.
Counting every team Ithaca finished ahead of at an invitational or postseason event, the Yellowjackets were an incredible 145-2 this season, finishing third at the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association meet but winning every other time they competed.
Lebron has been around plenty of championship teams. In addition to his, Ithaca is best-known for its football team that’s won five of the last six Division 6 titles. He sees every day the sacrifices made by athletes hoping to reach the highest level.
But to him, the level of commitment by the girls on this spring’s team still stood out. Some played volleyball in the past, but switched the cross country to better prepare for track season. As a team, they lifted weights during the offseason three times a week at 6:30 a.m., and informally the distance runners and some sprinters would get together every Sunday for a long run.
Equally “extraordinary,” the Yellowjackets have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.755.
Indeed, football does enjoy most of the statewide shine for the community of 3,000 about 45 miles north of Lansing. But the girls running program has made a reputation as well the last two school years.
“They’re diehard with football. They’re all friends with those guys. But they want their own success,” Lebron said of his athletes. “Every team at Ithaca lives in the shadow of Ithaca football. But I don’t think that’s a negative thing all together. I think our girls are motivated by them. We’re going to cast our own shadow.
"Football is football; it’s America. But these girls have done a good job making a name for themselves.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2015-16:
April: Lake Orion boys lacrosse – Report
March: Hancock ice hockey – Report
February: Petoskey boys skiing – Report
January: Spring Lake boys swimming & diving – Report
December: Saginaw Heritage girls basketball – Report
November: Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard volleyball – Report
October: Benton Harbor football – Report
September: Mason and Okemos boys soccer – Report
PHOTOS: (Top) A pair of Ithaca runners complete a handoff during their Regional meet May 20 at Shepherd. (Middle) The Yellowjackets pose with the first MHSAA Finals championship trophy won in program history. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.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."
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).]