HOUGHTON — There was a time when hosting a track meet in early April was nearly impossible in the Upper Peninsula.
Meets comprised of four field events were held in the Sault Ste. Marie High School gym in the early 1970s, with similar type meets sometimes held at a few other U.P. schools.
Indoor tracks, however, weren’t available in the U.P. back then, and the long winters sometimes made it difficult to hold outdoor meets even in mid to late April.
That no longer holds true as Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan University host indoor meets for high school student-athletes each April.
On April 6, a majority of the Copper Country schools, plus Iron River West Iron County, Iron Mountain, Munising and Negaunee participated in an indoor invitational at Tech, where the top three finishers of each event reached the podium. Team scores, however, weren’t recorded.
“I think it’s really important that we got this meet in,” said Houghton boys coach Dan Junttila. “It’s nice that Tech does this for us. We got a chance to see what the kids can do, and the coaches get a chance to get times on them. With the weather being the way it is, you never know what you might get this time of year.”
This served as the season debut for every school entered except Munising, which opened at Eagle River, Wis., Northland Pines on March 23.
Many U.P. track athletes will travel to Marquette to compete in indoor meets at NMU within their respective divisions Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Munising senior Michaela Peramaki took full advantage of her opportunity to compete in early-season meets, winning the girls pole vault with a school-record leap of 10 feet, 7 inches at Eagle River.
Peramaki then topped that effort last week by winning with another school-best jump of 11 feet at Tech, where one corner of the five-lane, 200-meter track is used as a runway.
“Vaulting here is not much different from any other track,” said Peramaki. “We had plenty of room.
“It’s so important to get a meet in at this time of year. This gives you a chance to work out the kinks. It’s a relief to finally get that (11-foot jump) under my belt. The guy running the vault gave me a few pointers, and I think my plant was a big part of my vault.”
The gym floor was used as a runway for high jump, won by Houghton’s Cara Monette at 4-10.
“I thought it went pretty good,” said Monette, who didn’t practice high jump this year until April 5. “I had to cram everything into one day. It’s different jumping from the gym floor. You get all the room you need, which gives you all the space to do what you want to do.”
The Chassell girls won the 3,200-meter relay in 10 minutes, 37.12 seconds, and Lela Rautiola took the 1,600 (6:10.34) followed by teammate Jenna Pietila (6:12.66).
Chassell’s boys got a first from Karsten Kytta in the 400 (58.35).
“I thought it was great for us to get on a track,” said Chassell coach Marco Guidotti. “We saw a lot of encouraging performances. Our girls in the 4x800 looked real strong. We have some depth coming up. Karsten taking first in the boys 400 was also a real bright spot. It was nice to see some of our kids come through in the sprints and middle distances.”
West Iron senior Emmy Kinner won four races, including the 60-meter dash in eight seconds, 200 (28.44), 400 (1:05.31) and long jump (14-11), just three days after the Wykons started practice.
“It’s different on a short track because it’s harder to pace yourself,” said Kinner. “I definitely ran more conservative (than on a 400 track). Although, we’re glad to get this meet in because we have a lot of new girls on our team.”
The Houghton boys showed their strength in the distances, winning the 3,200 relay (8:45.76) and taking the top two spots in the 800 and 1,600.
Houghton senior Nick Wilson won the 800 (2:13.25), and Clayton Sayen took the 1,600 (5:06.12).
“We feel good about today,” said Wilson. “Our distances did well. Everybody ran well. This meet helps us a lot. This gets us in better shape for the Dome meet (Marquette Invitational on April 18).”
The Gremlins also took the 1,600 relay (3:51.9) and grabbed four of the top five places in pole vault.
“We have 46 boys out, but still need to get an opportunity to see what they can do in competition,” said Junttila. “We want to see who’s going to respond to it. Leif Odegard (a junior) has been running in the shadows of our top-notch distance and middle distance runners, but he’s running excellent times. He’s really coming on.”
Lake Linden-Hubbell senior Brendan Middleton captured the 60 (7.13) and Siena Anderson took the girls 60 hurdles (10.25).
“I enjoy running the 60 more than the 100,” said Middleton, who will play football at Tech this fall. “I compare it to the 40. You can go full out, and I’ve got to get more explosion for football. It was good to get to see how fast the other people were and get a chance to run on a softer track.”
LL-H coach Gary Guisfredi also says the meet is beneficial.
“Right now, we like to come to this meet, especially with the weather being so questionable all the time,” he added. “It’s nice and dry and nice and warm in here. You don’t pull any muscles. This is a nice meet to find out what we have in different events.”
PHOTO: Hurdlers finish a race in the rain during last season's Upper Peninsula Division 1 Finals.
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).]