Leighton Latest of Family Hurdling Stars

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

June 7, 2016

Mendon’s Mary Leighton has been gliding over hurdles for the Hornets for three years now, dominating most Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference races, as well as an assortment of invitationals.

That’s nothing new for the Leighton clan, which boasts a lineage of talented hurdlers. But there’s something about Mary that’s different.

No one in Division 4 in the Lower Peninsula has gone faster than her in the 100-meter hurdles. Not after Saturday. The junior not only claimed a school-record time of 14.93 seconds en route to an MHSAA championship at Grand Rapids Houseman Field, she set an LP Division 4 meet record, beating Michelle Davis’ time of 15.05 for Reading in 2014.

Older sister Grace, who finished fourth at the LP Division 4 Finals in the 100s and sixth in the 300s as a senior in 2014, owns the Mendon 300 hurdles record, which Mary is closing in on. Older sister Caitlin previously had the 100 hurdles school record … until Saturday. Their mother, Sharon (maiden name Beebe), once had the records in the 100 hurdles at Mendon.

Mary Leighton was half a second away from Caitlin’s record midway through this spring, and she was confident she’d pass her sibling.

“I’m looking forward to beating it. I don’t think there’s going to be a party,” she said, mostly in jest, of her sisters not wanting to give up their record-holding status.

“People say it’s in the blood, but I think I was around it so much, it just kind of rubbed off on me. I have them to look up to, so it’s much easier for me. My form has definitely gotten a lot better. I can three-step now instead of four-step. The less steps you have, the faster you can get over the hurdle and the faster you can finish the race.”

Leighton, who was Finals runner-up in 2015, set her sites on a 15-flat time in the 100s by the time this year’s meet rolled around. She surprised herself by going even faster Saturday.

She beat the field by nearly a second. It was a flawless effort, which included a great start and a complete attack of the middle stretch of hurdles.

As soon as Leighton crossed the finish line, she covered her face with her hands in disbelief of the runaway victory and the time on the scoreboard.

“It hasn't really hit me yet on how I did,” a stunned Leighton said hours after the performance. “I just tried to focus on getting through semis so I actually had a shot.”

Her qualifying time was 15.54, which was a good sign of things to come.

“I was so nervous but I felt better and better the more I ran,” she said. “I didn't even know my time until after the 800 relay. I figured I broke (a record) because all the Mendon parents were just so happy, but I never could have imagined I broke the state record as well. I focused on how I could improve all season and my work paid off. I didn't want to take second again. My sister didn't care I broke her record; she was too happy. I am very happy with my performance and can't wait to see how much I can improve next year.”

Leighton added another all-state finish when she joined Emma Eberstein, Jenna Gales and Kaley Smith for a runner-up effort in the 800 relay (1:47.82), finishing just over a second behind champion Fowler. Her third top-eight finish was a fourth-place run of 47.87 in the 300 hurdles.

That wasn’t a school record, so Leighton has something to shoot for next spring. 

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at wmorgan@joeinsider.com with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Mary Leighton covers her face in joy and surprise after a lengthy win in the 100-meter hurdles Saturday at Houseman Field. (Middle) Leighton prepares to clear another hurdle flanked by a pair of opponents. (Photos by Brett Beier.)

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: 
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July 28: 
Running Set Life's Stage for Grosse Pointe South's Record-Setting Meier Sisters - Read
July 25: 
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July 21: 
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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).]