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 [email protected] 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.)
BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City.
As she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore.
“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.
“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.”
Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team.
“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.”
Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.
Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled.
“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind.
“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said.
Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.
“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.
“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.”
Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness.
“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.”
Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season.
“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.”
Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor.
“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.”
The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear.
She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do.
“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.”
Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture.
“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.”
Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)