Future Rivals Shine at Kent City, Hart Beats All for 2nd Finals Win

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

June 5, 2022

KENT CITY – Kylee Poulton and Lani Bloom are small-school standouts headed for the big time of Division I track & field in the Big Ten Conference.

They showed why at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals at Kent City High School. They’re about to be arch-rivals in college, too.

Poulton, a Holland Black River senior signed with Indiana University, sprinted to individual titles in the 100-meter dash (12.28 seconds) and 200 (24.83). Bloom, an Ithaca senior signed with Purdue University, ran away with championships in the 800 (2:11.86) and 1,600 (4:49.60). Both runners also anchored relays for their respective teams.

Cross country power Hart was a landslide winner of the team Finals title, the Pirates’ second overall and first since 2018, as they totaled 63 points – 24 more than runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia. Onsted was third (33), Montague fourth (29) and Quincy fifth (28).

“You know, it’s been fun. I know when I started coaching back in ’98 for Hart, they needed somebody and it kind of just grew into a passion. I love coaching – I like teaching school, but I love coaching, too,” said Hart girls track coach Calvin Ackley, who is an assistant for the Pirates’ girls cross country program that’s a five-time reigning champ in LP Division 3.

“It’s fun. It’s fun just to put Hart on the map a little bit in one small aspect of life. … If you’re going to do something, do it all-out, you know.”

All-out is exactly the way Poulton and Bloom performed Saturday.

For Poulton, those were her first two Finals championships. She had the best time of all qualifiers in the 400 but decided not to run that event because she wanted to conserve energy for the 200. Last year, she was LPD3 runner-up in the 100, third in the 200 and fourth in the 400.

Poulton ran the anchor leg on Black River’s 1,600 relay team to close the day Saturday. That quartet did not place, but she still enjoyed herself.

Ithaca track“This year was really fun. I really love my team this year,” said Poulton, who ran into a bit of a headwind Saturday but still felt strong. “Having a 4x4 relay has been, like, a highlight because it’s just so fun.

“In the past years, I wasn’t able to participate in relays, but we were able to put together a pretty good team this year and run in the state finals. I’d say my highlight would be the Regional meet. We were last (in the 1,600 relay) and then we ended up becoming first (at the Regional).”

Bloom is no stranger to MHSAA Finals championships. She also won 800 and 1,600 titles at last year’s Finals, plus she captured an LP Division 3 cross country championship in the fall.

Bloom anchored Ithaca’s 3,200 relay team that placed fourth.

“I was really nervous going into (Saturday’s meet) because I haven’t really had a lot of races where I had to have that get-up-and-go mindset where I had to, like, actually race my hardest, dive over the line every time,” she said. “It was a challenge for me today, but I feel like I really rose to the occasion and I’m really proud of what I did today.”

Other individual champions from Saturday’s LP Division 3 Finals included Onsted’s Emmry Ross in the 400 (57.93), Grand Rapids Covenant Christian’s Meghan Beute in the 3,200 (personal record 10:37.57), Pewamo-Westphalia’s Saige Martin in the 100 hurdles (15.23 PR) and 300 hurdles (46.24 PR), Sand Creek’s Grace Elliott in shot put (40-4.25 PR), Grayling’s Rylan Finstrom in discus (145-2 PR), Lawton’s Heidi Newhouse in high jump (5-5), Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Ally Olszewski in pole vault (11-0 PR) and Benzie Central’s Gloria Stepanovich in long jump (17-4.25).

Two of Montague’s relay teams claimed championships, in the 400 (50.24) and 800 (1:47.10). Ross helped Onsted also win the 1,600 relay (4:06.02), while Hart cruised to victory in the 3,200 (9:30.18).

“I mean, it’s crazy. We just came here with nine girls, and we knew we were seeded decently high. But just to go out here and finally do it has been something that I didn’t expect at the beginning of the season,” Hart senior Kendall Williamson said. “I had no idea we were going to be here.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Holland Black River’s Kylee Poulton, middle, sets the pace during one of her sprint championships Saturday at Kent City. (Middle) Ithaca’s Lani Bloom builds a significant lead during one of her victories. (Click for more from Carter Sherline/Run Michigan.)

East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

August 8, 2022

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."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe 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."

East Kentwood soccerLeon 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).]