JENISON – Shepherd senior Amber Gall withstood the elements and pressure to end her tremendous career the way she hoped it would.
Gall won the 800-meter run and the 1,600 on Saturday, and began the day helping her team to a first-place finish in the 3,200 relay (9:33.89) at the MHSAA Division 3 Track & Field Finals at Jenison High School.
Three weather delays – one that delayed the start of the finals until 3 p.m.; the second, a 30-minutes delay, halfway through the meet; and the last one just before the start of the final event (1,600 relay) that pushed the conclusion deeper into the night – caused athletes and officials to pack and unpack throughout much of the day.
The rain, wind and hail didn’t seem to bother Gall, who will attend University of Michigan in the fall on a track scholarship. She won the 800 run as a sophomore and also ran on the winning 3,200 relay that season. Gall finished second in the 800 last season, one hundredth of a second behind Judy Rector of Hanover-Horton, and she and her teammates also placed sixth in the 3,200 relay in 2018.
“I’m excited,” Gall said after crossing the finish line in the 800 with a time of 2:12.72. Lauren Freeland of Kent City was second with a time of 2:13.97. “Last year I lost by .01 to one of my best friends.
“Mentally, it takes a toll. Last year I had a good year, not my best. I couldn’t be happier with the way this year has gone. The 800 is probably the toughest to run. It’s the gutsiest. You have to find another gear. For me, my blood pressure drops really fast so I have to do a lot of prerace work.”
As far as strategy, Gall said it all depends on how the race is run. She trailed Freeland at the halfway point before making her move.
Gall spent two minutes immediately following the race talking and consoling her teammate, Amelia Gouin, a sophomore, who finished ninth in the 800.
“I told her she has some big races ahead of her,” Gall said.
Pirates capture title
Pewamo-Westphalia won its first team title since 2015 and fourth overall as it finished with 45 points. Last season’s co-champion, St. Charles, was second with 37.5 points and Shepherd took third with 35. Scottville Mason County Central was fourth with 31, and Quincy placed fifth with 30.
Kent City won the meet’s final event, taking the 1,600 relay with a time of 4:04.15. Mason County Central, with a time of 4:04.55, placed second, and those eight points moved it past Quincy for fourth place in the team competition.
No Pewamo-Westphalia athlete placed first, but two of its relays, in the 800 and 3,200, placed second. The top individual finisher for the Pirates was Sophie Thelen. She placed third in the 100 dash and took fourth in the 200.
Motivation comes in many forms. For Elizabeth Gramza, a senior from Perry, it came from a fellow track athlete on the boys team at Perry.
Gramza did not place in any event last season but took first in the 100-meter hurdles on this afternoon.
She finished second in the Regional and was seeded ninth entering the finals. Seeded No. 1 was Brittany Bowman of Kingsley.
“I was perfectly getting over the hurdles,” Gramza said. “I was going against the top seed in the prelims and I beat her (with a time of 15.90. Bowman ran a 15.91). I felt really comfortable in the prelims. That gave me confidence.”
Gramza’s best finish last season was ninth in the 300 hurdles. Not only did she not score a point in 2018, but Perry as a team did not score.
“We came in to compete,” Gramza said. “I’m not sure what the difference was this year. I was with a very good hurdler (on the boys team) and he’s short. He said he works hard in practice day after day without getting much results. He said he watched me come out (last season) and saw that I just started running well. That flipped my switch. I started working a lot harder, every day in practice.”
Bowman did place second in the 100 hurdles with a time of 16.04.
Gramza was also scheduled to compete in the pole vault, 300 hurdles and 400 relay. She did well in the pole vault finishing third with a vault of 10 feet, 3 inches. Jael Wood of Scottville Mason County Central took first in that event at 11 feet, 6 inches.
Youth is served
It’s not supposed to be this easy, particularly when one considers Lexus Bargesser of Grass Lake is a freshman.
Bargesser won the sprint double, the 100 and 200 dashes, with times of 12.56 and 25.43, respectively. The time in the 100 is a personal best. She won the 200 by more than half a second.
“That’s my favorite race,” she said of the 200. “I love the energy. You feel yourself, on the run, having all that energy. It’s one of those races, a long sprint that I love. The energy of this meet made me better. I was hoping (to win both). Anything can happen. I was thinking this morning, I can win this.”
Jayden Humphrey of Manchester placed second in both (12.82 in the 100, 26.04 in the 200).
Sprint relays go to reigning co-champ
St. Charles won both the 400 and 800 relays last season on its way to the school’s first Finals team title, which it shared with Hart. On Saturday, St. Charles won both again – and there were some familiar faces leading the charges.
Celine Whiren, a junior, ran on both relay teams each of the last two years, and this time she ran anchor on the 800.
“Pewamo-Westphalia was winning when I got the baton,” she said. “Oh, it must have been four or five strides and I just ran my normal race.”
St. Charles won the 400 relay with a time of 49.95 seconds and the 800 with a time of 1:46.05.
Well worth the wait
Mikayla Williams of St. Charles competed in three field events and in the last one, the long jump, she recorded a personal best of 17 feet, 2 inches to place first. Last year she placed second in the long jump.
“It actually came on my first jump of the (event),” she said. “I jump three events (high jump, pole vault and long jump), and lately I’ve been babying my (left) knee. I jump off my left knee, and today it felt great.”
Williams will attend Wayne State next season and expects to compete in the triple jump and the long jump.
She also played volleyball in the fall. So why risk injuring your knee playing two sports?
“I jump off two knees in volleyball,” she said.
Renae Kutcha of Jackson Lumen Christi said she felt the pressure of winning the 400 dash as a freshman last season. To offset this she decided to work harder, a regiment that included running the 800, to improve her leg strength. It worked.
Kutcha’s time of 57.81 in the 400 on Saturday was good enough to get her past Josee Behling of Boyne City, who placed second in 58.04.
“Doing the (800) helped me,” Kutcha said. “I wasn’t running well early in the season, and then I remembered that this was my event. So I got my legs stronger, and my times started to go down.”
Byron sophomore thrower Sarah Marvin won both the shot put and discus Saturday, ahead of Caro's runner-up Sheridan Dinsmore in both events. Marvin had taken third in both as a freshman.
Muskegon Western Michigan Christian freshman Abby Vanderkooi won the 3,200 in 10:36.17, clearing the field by more than 21 seconds.
Onsted junior McKenna Russell repeated as champion in the 300 hurdles. Hillsdale junior Bailey Morgret won a close competition in the high jump.
PHOTOS: (Top) Shepherd's 3,200 relay, including Amber Gall (second from left), celebrate a win Saturday at Jenison. (Middle) Pewamo-Westphalia breaks past the finish line for more points on the way to winning the team title. (Photos by Annette Tipton. 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."
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).]