KINGSFORD – The race for the Upper Peninsula Division 1 girls track & field championship came down to the wire here Saturday, as Marquette edged reigning champion Negaunee 106-100.
Marquette secured its eighth title in nine years by winning the 1600-meter relay in four minutes, 14.58 seconds.
Negaunee, which held a three-point lead going into the day's final race, took sixth in the 1,600.
"What a day," said Marquette coach Natalie Messano. "It was a battle all day. Negaunee has a great team. It's real stressful as a coach, although I had faith in our girls. We had our eye on the trophy. But they made us work for it, that's for sure."
Negaunee gained the upper hand in the previous race with juniors Emily Paupore and Talon Prusi going 1-2 in the 3,200 run on this sunny and warm day at Flivver Field.
Paupore retained her 3,200 title in 11:57.64, with Prusi at 12:32.67 and Marquette sophomore Josie Danielkiewicz third (12:36.32).
"It was close all the way," said Negaunee coach Vickie Paupore. "To say I'm proud of our team is an understatement. Talon really stepped up in the 3,200, and our throwers had big performances. Emily and Chloe Norman are hard workers. Both gave it their all and did what they needed to do."
Marquette swept the relays, also taking the 400 (52.06), 800 (1:49.55) and 3,200 (10:07.44).
Emily Paupore added firsts in the 800 (2:23) and 1,600 (5:16.79). Norman won high jump at five feet, long jump (16-1) and 300 hurdles (45.56) and was runner-up to Menominee sophomore Mackenzie Wellner (16.43) by just more than half a second in the 100 hurdles.
"I didn't have my best 3,200 run, but I'll take it," said Emily Paupore, who took a week off after the Regional (May 16 at Negaunee) due to shin issues. "I'm learning to deal with adversity. Not everything goes the way you want. You just have to push through it. Having to deal with it makes you stronger. I have so much support from my family, coaches and friends. I love this kind of pressure. It makes you work so much harder and want it more."
Sault Ste. Marie sophomore Emily McLean set the U.P. Finals shot put record for the second straight year at 39-2, also matching her school-record toss from the Regional (May 16 at Escanaba). Her team finished third overall.
"My coach (Brad Boven) is really helpful," said McLean, who was runner-up in discus (108-3). "He gives me a lot of pointers. Today, he just told me to worry about myself and stay positive. My throw in the Regional was a little bit of a motivator, but I always try to get better. I had a real good throw in disc, but it was a scratch. That's just the way it goes. The girl from Negaunee (junior Abbie Tollefson) is really good."
Tollefson won discus (109-9) and was fourth in shot.
Kingsford senior Olivia Allen won the 400 in a school-record 58.93, added firsts in the 100 (12.93) and 200 (26.47) and was runner-up in long jump (15-9).
PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette’s Molly Welch runs her leg of the Redettes’ winning 3,200 relay Saturday. (Middle) Negaunee’s Chloe Norman clears a hurdle on the way to winning the 300 race. (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."
2021-22 Made in Michigan
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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).]