Heartbreak Pushes St. Francis to Finish Strong

June 1, 2013

By Chip Mundy
Special to Second Half

HUDSONVILLE – After finishing as runner-up last year, the Traverse City St. Francis girls track and field team did not need any emotional motivation Saturday at the MHSAA Division 4 Final at Baldwin Street Middle School in Hudsonville.

St. Francis got it, anyway. But it came in a painful way.

Senior Kaitlyn Hegewald tore her Achilles tendon in her left foot as she began the third leg of the 800 relay and could not return to action. With Hegewald sidelined, the Gladiators posted three victories and captured their first MHSAA championship in track and field.

“I got the hand-off and took a few steps, and I just couldn’t step on my foot anymore,” Hegewald said while sitting in a golf cart with her left foot wrapped in tape.

St. Francis coach Julie Duffing was watching from across the field and did not realize what had happened.

“I actually thought she got spiked, and then she kept trying to go,” Duffing said. “Coach finally yelled at her to stop, and that’s when she went down. We were expected to win that race, and we were ahead.”

It could have had devastating consequences, but the Gladiators regrouped.

Freshman Holly Bullough came through with victories in the 800 (2:16.53) and the 1,600 (5:07.37), while senior Lauren Buckel defended her Finals championship in the 400 in 59.54 seconds and was runner-up in the 200, which she won last year as well.

“We had one of our top runners tear her Achilles in the 800,” Buckel said. “I think it broke everyone’s heart.

“She’s a senior. It really kind of dampened the mood because we were hoping to come away with a state title in the beginning, then it kind of gave us a ‘let’s do this for Kaitlyn’ mentality.”

Buckel and Hegewald had a special bond that went beyond teammates.

“Lauren and Kaitlyn have done handoffs together since the seventh grade,” Duffing said.

Buckel’s title in the 400 was especially gratifying as that event has caused her both grief and happiness during her career. In fact, she calls the 400 “my beast.”

“That race has kind of been my beast, kind of something that I’ve struggled with,” she said. “It’s been a challenge for me. I’ve ran it now for nine years, ever since the fourth grade.

“It’s always been such a hard race.”

Duffing has seen first-hand how Buckel has struggled with the event.

“Last year she didn’t want to run it, so we did the whole ‘you’re not running it, and you don’t have to run it,’ thing until she asked me to run it,” Duffing said. “And when she asked, it was hers.

“She’s a beast, and the beast conquered the beast.”

Meanwhile, Bullough broke through in her first MHSAA Final in amazing fashion. She won the 800 by more than 5 seconds and took the 1,600 by more than 10 seconds. She also was runner-up in the 3,200 and anchored the 3,200 relay team that finished second.

“In the mile I was seeded first, and I won that, so it was very exciting,” Bullough said. “It wasn’t as close as I thought it would be, but they still pushed me as hard as I could go. In the 800, I was seeded second by like milliseconds, and that one was very hard – harder than I expected. But in the end I had extra power to pull through, and that’s what I did.”

And Bullough spoke of how the injury to Hegewald affected her during the meet.

“That was heartbreaking,” she said. “She’s a senior and everything, and that just made us so sad. But it also made us want to win more for her.”

Runner-up Reading, which finished second to Traverse City St. Francis by 14 points, won three events, including the 400 and 1,600 relays. Junior Michelle Davis won the 300 hurdles in 44.92 seconds, breaking the LP Division 4 record of 44.98 set in 2010 by Megan Heffner of Kinde-North Huron. Davis also ran on both winning relays, as did sophomore Jennifer Davis and freshman Sam Pfeiffer.

The other double winner was Miranda Johnson of Ottawa Lake Whiteford, which placed sixth. Johnson, a junior, repeated as champion in the long jump and also won the 200. Johnson broke the LP Division 4 meet record with a leap of 18 feet , 2 ½ inches, topping the previous record of 17-11¾ set by Amanda Weber of Portland St. Patrick in 2004.

Other repeat champions were senior Elizabeth Herriman of Sand Creek in the shot put, junior Addie Schumacher of Beal City in the high jump, senior Chantel Davenport of Athens in the 100 hurdles and junior Kirsten Olling of Breckenridge in the 3,200.

The other champions were junior Jade Madison of New Buffalo in the discus, junior Amanda MacDonald of Coleman in the pole vault and junior Ashley White of Detroit Edison Academy in the 100.

Royal Oak Shrine won the 800 relay, and Hillsdale Academy took the 3,200 relay.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sprinters approach the finish line during a 100-meter dash preliminary Saturday. (Middle) Ottawa Lake Whiteford's Miranda Johnson (middle) finished first in the long jump and 200 and second in the 100. (Photo by Carter Sherline. Click to see more photo coverage from RunMichigan.com.)  

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).]