In Just 2nd Season, Van Dyk Breaks Decades-Old K-Christian Throws Records

By Pam Shebest
Special for

June 9, 2022

KALAMAZOO — When an exuberant Tess Van Dyk broke the shot put record at Kalamazoo Christian earlier this year, the senior was thrilled at reaching one of her high school goals.

Southwest CorridorFor her throws coach, Tracy (Rozema) Jackson, the achievement was bittersweet.

Jackson was the previous record-holder with a put of 41 feet, 6 inches, and knew that record was in jeopardy when she saw Van Dyk’s numbers a year ago.

“I thought, just wait and be prepared for it,” Jackson said. “It was kind of something sentimental. That record had been in place for 34 years. I set it in 1988.”

Van Dyk actually broke the record twice.

She put the shot 42 feet, 6 inches, to snap Jackson’s record, then the same day, threw the current mark of 42-9.

That happened during a dual meet April 21, and was just the start of a stellar year.

Van Dyk also shattered the previous discus throw record of 127 feet, 3 inches, set by Sandy (Wolthuis) George in 1978.

Van Dyk’s record-setter was 134-6, tossed at the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship meet May 24.

“When I started track, one of my big goals was to break either the shot put or discus record,” Van Dyk said. “I was like, before I leave this school, I want my name on that board.

“That’s what started me on the path to loving track and getting that grit for it.”

Since the records board has not yet been updated, the recent grad will have to return to the school to see her name up there. But her coach gave her a preview.

“I went into the gymnasium and I took a picture of the board with my name on it, then I covered it up with her name (using SnapChat),” Jackson said.

Those two records are not the only accolades Van Dyk has on her resume.

She owns three MHSAA Finals titles: the discus and shot last year and the shot this year at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 Track & Field Championships.

In addition, she earned all-state honors both seasons.

The camaraderie and respect between the student and coach is evident as they talk and laugh, reviewing the last two years.

In fact, Van Dyk is headed this fall to Western Michigan University, her coach’s alma mater.

Jackson was on the college track team, but noted: “I do not have any records there, and none anymore, thanks to this one,” she said, nodding toward Van Dyk, laughing.

Since her sophomore season was scrubbed because of the statewide COVID-19 shutdown, Van Dyk’s first introduction to track & field was her junior year.

“I just naturally grew toward shot put and discus with the help of my coach and other people because I like running, but not competitively,” she said.

“Shot put you can kind of get your frustrations out. If you had a really bad day, you can just take up all that emotion and let it all go in that moment.”

Kalamazoo Christian track & fieldIt is different for discus, she said. “For discus, you really get the calmness of it and then a quick little snap as you release it, just the feeling of knowing it’s a good one.”

Van Dyk learned a few important lessons at the MHSAA Finals last year.

“In shot put, I had thrown a 41-foot before I went to states,” she said. “(Finals day) was a hot, steamy day. There wasn’t a cloud in sight.

“We were all getting beaten down by the weather. In throwing, you’re just standing there cooking. I had to push through it. I had a huge support team behind me and trusted that my body knew what it had to do.”

It knew enough to give Van Dyk, the top seed, the championship.

In discus, she was seeded third.

“I’d been struggling with that all year, so I had some bigger fish to fry,” she said. “As soon as I got up there, it was a windy day at Baldwin Middle School (in Hudsonville), and some of the big dogs started hitting the fence area around it.

“That was when I realized it doesn’t matter what their records are, you just have to do what you can do. Then I realized I could do it and got my head in the game and squeaked out a 112 (to win).”

Although Van Dyk repeated as shot put champ Saturday, she finished second in discus.

“It was honestly kind of funny, because the girl who beat me (Elli Stender of Gobles) was slated for third as well,” Van Dyk said, referring to her own junior year. “She’s a great girl. I’ve been competing against her all season, and she’s got great form.

“Everything worked together like what happened to me last year. I couldn’t be more grateful to celebrate with her. I am honestly proud of my second place.”

Looking at next season, Jackson said she would not mind if Van Dyk spent some time working with the K-Christian throwers.

“I thought I gave up my (coaching) position now that she took over control of the record,” Jackson joked. “I feel like she just has to walk over here (from WMU). She doesn’t even need gas.

“She does an amazing job with some of the other throwers. That came out this year.”

And not only with her own teammates.

Although the Comets and Hackett Catholic Prep are fierce crosstown rivals, Hackett coach Carl Scholten has respect for Van Dyk.

“She’s a great technician and she knows the events very well, knows the form, knows the techniques and the mechanics,” he said. “That makes her incredibly gifted in these events.

“It’s led to her great success. I love that, not only with her own team but with other kids, she’s wants to help develop other throwers, too. We had a couple of seniors out for the first time, and they really connected with her. She was a great model and inspiration for them.”

One thing the two schools have in common is their faith-based education, which is very important to Van Dyk.

That is also one reason she chose WMU.

“Coach Makiba Batten does not host practices on Sundays, which is a big thing for me,” Van Dyk said. “It’s so close to home, I don’t have to switch churches and that was a big thing, too.”

She also enjoys talking with others about her religion.

When she was getting her shirt for this season, instead of her name she had SDG on the back.

“People ask all the time why I have SDG on my back,” she said. “I say, ‘Glad you asked.’ It stands for Soli Deo Gloria: to God be the glory alone.

“It’s just a reminder to me every time I throw that it’s not me who’s throwing, it’s Him who gave me strength.”

Jackson, who is coordinator of surgery at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, said if she has one thing to say to Van Dyk, it is: “The discipline you put in for the discus and the shot, just continue that in your life, and especially in your spiritual walk. I know how important your church is. Remember the ultimate glory is His.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Kalamazoo Christian’s Tess Van Dyk, pictured at center on the awards podium at Saturday’s LPD4 Finals, closed her career as her school’s record holder in discus and shot put. (Middle) Van Dyk, left, and Kalamazoo Christian throws coach Tracy Jackson. (Action photos courtesy of Kathy Van Dyk, Finals photo by State Champs! Sports Network, and head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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

By Steve Vedder
Special for

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).]