By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – There have been a ton of awards and accomplishments recognizing the high school career of Laura Lyons, but the recent Lake Linden-Hubbell graduate remains extremely well grounded.
"I have to prioritize," she said in a recent telephone conversation from Fortune Lake, near Crystal Falls, where she is working at a summer camp that attracts youngsters, campers with disabilities and families.
"You have to focus on things you want to do," she said, listing school work, sports, family and faith among her priorities. "They have to stay out top."
It is easy to see Lyons has her priorities in place when considering the kind of person she has become.
Lyons was a four-sport standout for the Lakes and just as successful off the field. She was one of 32 students statewide to receive an MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Award this winter and one of four Upper Peninsula students to receive a four-year college scholarship from the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame. She was also valedictorian of her graduating class.
"She is one of the best athletes I have coached in my (nearly) 40 years," said LL-H track coach Gary Guisfredi. "She is just an all-around great person. She is not just a great athlete, she is a top-notch kid."
Lyons earlier this month helped her track & field team repeat as U.P. Division 3 champion, winning long jump (16-feet-0.5), placing second in the 200-meter dash (in a personal-best 27.34) and taking third in the 100 (13.4) and 400 (1:01.77). Guisfredi said she probably could have placed in pole vault and excelled in other events if meet rules didn’t limit athletes to only four.
"She is a very versatile athlete," said Guisfredi. "There are a lot of different attributes (for athletic success), and she has them all. And she also works with our younger athletes. Other kids look up to her."
Lyons missed the final week of track practice because she was already working at Fortune Lake, but she followed a training regimen provided by Guisfredi before she began her daily camp duties. "She probably did more than I told her to do," he said with a laugh.
In addition to running four track events this spring, Lyons was also a conference all-star shortstop and pitcher in softball as one of eight teammates who doubled up in both sports. She was all-conference in basketball at guard and was an MVP setter in volleyball for the three-time conference and District champions.
Handling all the sports was not a challenge because, she said, "It is cross-training for all the rest. Everything you do in one sport can be applied to the others."
She’s never had problems being ready for the different track & field events, although she recalled at the 2017 U.P. Finals being midway through her 400 race when her name was called to compete at long jump.
She enjoys track more than the other sports because of the team camaraderie, on the field and off. "It is really a social sport," she said of teammates, members of the boys team and opponents having fun in the infield during other races. She said even the LL-H boys and girls who did not qualify for the Finals still attended and were very supportive.
"We are like one big family," she said of her track teammates. "I don't hang out with a lot of the kids outside of school (she does have to study, after all) but we do spend a lot of time together at our daily routines. Somehow it all works out."
She also enjoys talking to athletes from other schools prior to her track events so "I don't get as nervous. I warm up a lot before the races."
Lyons and her teammates also serve as role models for the younger athletes. "A lot of us help coach other sports. And it makes me thankful for having the support of the community. We are a mirror athletically in the community," she said, indicating her accomplishments are a direct result "of my upbringing, the way I was raised."
Definitely not a me-first person, Lyons also expressed happiness over how women at church collect newspaper clippings of her deeds and pass them on to her. "I realize how they are a part of what I am doing," she said.
Asked what she is most proud of accomplishing, she hesitated for several seconds, then answered, "That is a tough one. I am most proud of the fact I have been so motivated in so many different things and (of) showing younger kids they can do the same things if they set their mind to it."
Lyons anticipates joining the track team when she attends nearby Michigan Tech University. She plans to follow an academic path of biomedical engineering with a focus on pre-med.
"She's got the whole package," Guisfredi said. "This kid is always smiling. She is a very special young lady."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lake Linden-Hubbell’s Laura Lyons is embraced by Ontonagon’s Fahren Kolpack and holds a hand of Felch North Dickinson’s Masyn Alexa after they took the top three places in the 400 at the UP Division 3 Finals, all within half a second of each other. (Middle) Lyons, third from left, stands with honorees on the Breslin Center floor during the Scholar-Athlete Awards ceremony in March. (Top photo 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).]