By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – Fowler girls track coach Jill Feldpausch might have felt like she won the lottery Saturday afternoon, even though she said she “didn’t have a winning ticket.”
The lack of a “winning ticket” that Feldpausch referred to was her team failing to have an individual champion at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals at Houseman Field. A bevy of solid performances, including three relay titles, led Fowler to first place with 56 points. Concord was second with 44, and New Lothrop was third with 38.
“We don’t have a winning ticket. We have two awesome seniors who really stepped up,” Feldpausch said. “We just do what we train for. We keep coming and working hard, and it seems like every meet they kept setting personal records one right after another.”
It was the seventh state championship for the Fowler girls program and third with Feldpausch as coach. Last year, Fowler was runner-up to Harbor Springs.
“After finishing second last year and third the year before that, our team was ready to finish it and ready to get first,” said Madison Koenigsknecht, one of those two “amazing seniors.”
Julie Thelen, the other “amazing senior,” said, “We got closer and closer every year, and this year it was like the big bang – the perfect finish – and it was just awesome. It was amazing since we all worked so hard all season.”
Koenigsknecht and Thelen ran on two of the three winning relay teams. McKenzie Koenigsknecht, younger sister of Madison, also ran on two of the winning relay teams.
“I think everybody working together in the relays really put us over the edge,” Madison Koenigsknecht said.
Fowler won the 800 relay as the Koenigsknecht sisters teamed with Thelen and Sidney Horak to win in 1 minute, 46.57 seconds. In the 1,600, it was the Koenigsknecht sisters again, this time with Thelen and Taryn Shafer to win in 4:08.23. Both the 800 and 3,200 relay teams broke school records.
That third winning relay was a collection of the classes as senior Madison Koenigsknecht, junior Ashley VanElls, sophomore Kian Becker and freshman Morgan Goerge won in 9:38.0.
“In the individual events, everybody picking up points here and there really made a difference,” Madison Koenigsknecht said.
She was one of those who helped individually as she was third in the 400 in 59.43. Thelen also took third in the 800 in 2:23.64, and Becker was sixth in the 3,200 in 1:41.59.
In the field events, Fowler sophomore Ciera Weber was fifth in the pole vault as she cleared 6-0 to break the school record. Freshman Alyssa Vandegriff was fifth in the high jump at 5-0.5, and Horak was sixth in the long jump (15-11.5).
“It’s just awesome because we’re all one family, and we all work hard and push each other,’ Madison Koenigsknecht said. “Right from the beginning of the season, we knew that this was one of our biggest goals and if we continued to work really hard and push each other that we would be able to do it.”
It was truly a team championship.
“Everybody stepped up, and I’m so proud of them,” she said. “It was all about the team aspect, and our 12 girls here all contributed.”
Concord, which finished second after placing third a year ago, was led by senior Lindsey Lehman, who repeated as champion in the 200 and also won the 100 after finishing second a year ago. She appeared a bit surprised at her victory in the 100 as she was seeded fourth coming into the meet.
“I was shocked that I won the 100,” said Lehman, whose winning time was 12.30 seconds, breaking the Division 4 meet record. “The girl who got third beat me at Regionals, and she’s a really good runner. She’s only a sophomore.”
After winning the 100, Lehman was able to set her sights on repeating as champion in the 200 in what would be the final individual event of her high school career. She won it in 25.70.
“I got out of the blocks really well, and that was one of my better races,” she said. “I just always feel good in that race.
“I wanted to prove that how much work you put in during the offseason can determine the outcome.”
Concord had another individual title. Sophomore Samantha Saenz won the 1,600 in 5 minutes, 10.89 seconds.
New Lothrop, which finished third, had a championship in the 400 relay. Skye Nancarrow, Alex Bedrosian, Sydney Pope and Caitlyn Bruff won in 50.83. Pope and Bruff are freshmen.
Ashley Hermann of Petersburgh-Summerfield repeated in the high jump by clearing 5-4, and Caylin Bonser of Harbor Springs set a Division 4 meet record in the discus with a toss of 141-6. Harbor Springs swept the throws as Erika Lechner took the shot put with a toss of 41-11.75.
Another meet record was broken in the 100 hurdles, where Mary Leighton of Mendon won in 14.53. Sophomore Baleigh Irelan of Reading added a victory in the 300 hurdles in 46.25.
Other winners in the running events included sophomore Alexandra Hannson of Brown City in the 400 (58.11), Kensington Garvey of Blanchard Montabella in the 800 (2:21.58) and Ava Strenge of Battle Creek St. Philip in the 3,200 (10:59.5).
In the field events, Sydnie Avery of Saugatuck won the pole vault at 10-3, and Akwia Tilton of Birmingham Roeper took the long jump at 17-6.
PHOTOS: (Top) Fowler's Julie Thelen (middle) works for valuable points in finishing third in the 800. (Middle) Concord's Lindsey Lehman breaks away for one of her two sprint championships. (Photos by Angie Graham/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).]