IRONWOOD — There are at least three shining stars on the western horizon in Upper Peninsula girls track as Ironwood junior Lilley Smith, her freshman sister Aubrey and Bessemer junior Natalie Stone are setting the pace among distance runners on the Gogebic Range.
Aubrey Smith won the 1600-meter run at 6 minutes, 0.5 seconds in last Monday’s Jack Kraemer Invitational on a cloudy and chilly day at Longyear Field.
Stone, who had been dealing with leg issues, was runner-up at 6:11.47, and Lilley Smith took fourth (6:14.03), just 34 hundredths of a second behind senior Olivia Soltero of Washburn-Port Wing South Shore (Wis.).
Lilley then dominated the 3,200 at 13:34.16, nearly two minutes ahead of the field.
“In distance running we’re competitive, yet everybody is friendly,” said Lilley Smith. “You gain respect for yourself and others.
“Aubrey has an amazing kick. We started real early. I started in seventh grade and fell in love with it.”
Aubrey Smith was in sixth grade when she began her running career.
“Our mom ran marathons and told us great stories about running,” she said. “When you’re done with a race, you look back at what you did and you’re proud of what you accomplished.”
Stone also ran in the 1,600 relay in which the Speedgirls took fifth.
“Everything is very tight,” she said. “I felt good today, but I’m still a little sore. I’m just so happy to be able to run because I love it so much. Running is a lifetime sport, and I want to do it all my life. I had missed six weeks. This is only my second day back, and my lungs aren’t quite there yet.”
Last fall, Aubrey Smith was runner-up and Lilley placed sixth at the Upper Peninsula Division 2 Cross Country Final at Marquette. Smith was third in the 1,600 and second in the 3,200 at last spring’s UPD2 Track & Field Finals.
“Aubrey is very talented and hard working,” said Ironwood cross country coach Ben Schmandt. “It’s challenging for a freshman to compete at the highest level. Lilley is also one of the hardest workers on the team. She exemplifies perseverance. She fell down at Hancock and was the first one to finish (fourth overall in cross country) with bleeding feet. That’s dedication in the truest form. She’s one of the most coachable kids we’ve had.”
Stone placed third at the UPD2 Cross Country Final and in the 1,600 in UPD3 last spring at Kingsford behind Mid Peninsula’s Landry Koski and Rudyard’s Tristan Smith.
“Lilley and Aubrey push me, and I push them,” said Stone. “It’s so much fun to run with them. Hopefully, the U.P. Track Finals will go better for me this year. Landry is a very good runner. She just came from behind and won it. She has a real strong kick.”
Bessemer coach Tracy Rowe refers to Stone as one of the team’s leaders.
“Natalie is a great runner,” she said. “You feel so bad for kids when they get hurt. I’m just glad she can run and feels better.”
At Friday’s Ontonagon Invitational, Aubrey Smith placed fourth (6:10.8) and Lilley was fifth (6:11.2) in the 1,600. Lilley then took second in the 3,200 (13:10.3).
“We enjoy running with each other,” Aubrey said after the meet in Ironwood “We give each other the thumbs up when we pass each other in a race.”
“I love Natalie,” Smith added. “I’ve been running against her since middle school.”
John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
PHOTOS: Bessemer’s Natalie Stone leads a race during last season’s UPD3 Finals at Kingsford. (Middle) Ironwood’s Lilley Smith is among those pacing the pack during last season’s UPD2 Final in the 1,600. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
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).]