No giving up in Southfield's Cross

June 1, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Latipha Cross was desperate for a boost last Friday, or her high school track career was sure to end a week before what could be its crowning moment.

The Southfield senior was preparing for her favorite race at the Oakland County Championships. The fastest 400 runner in MHSAA Finals history, Cross had finished second at her Regional the week before, after side effects of her lymphoma had “snuck up” again and caused her to throw up.

She'd stood against tipping points her entire life. But now, if she didn't win the county title, she was ready to give up.

“At first I was doubting myself. ‘I can’t do this. I can’t go to states.’ So I gave it one more try,” Cross said. “If I would’ve lost there, I would’ve scratched out for states. Then I beat her, and I felt good afterward. I said I know I can do this. I’ll work harder, stay up. Every since County, I’ve felt like I got an extra burst of energy from somewhere. I don’t know where.”

Cross ran her fastest 400 that day, in a meet-record 55.98 seconds. Just like that, she’s again the runner to chase at Saturday’s Final at East Kentwood.

But that comeback success is just the latest slice of the Bluejays senior's inspiring story.

Cross twice has battled back from cancer – she also defeated melanoma as a junior, despite having it on the day she set her all-MHSAA Finals record. And that was after two months as a sophomore when she didn’t know where she’d be sleeping at night.

She continuously has bounced back – and traveled far to reach her final high school meet before joining Eastern Michigan University's program this fall.

No hurdles too high

Cross has no problem talking about what she’s had to survive in her young life.

But few at her school know of the hurdles she’s jumped just to make it this far.

When she tells people, they say her life is like a movie.

If it was, the opening scene might be the night she slept on the slide at a local park.

Cross lived with her biological parents only during the first months of life, and has since fallen out of touch with them. Later, she was adopted by another family, and then lived with a biological aunt for a short time.

But by her sophomore year of high school, Cross’ living situation was in full upheaval. She stayed with friends from night to night and then on the streets for a bit before eventually ending up at that park.

The bouncing around continued until last fall, when teammate and “little sister” Shauntai Graham brought Cross home.

“I never had a real home until my sister said you’re coming to live with me,” Cross said.

Safe place

Cross believes her winning burst at the Oakland County meet came from her sister Ajanee. Just a few days earlier, May 20, was the anniversary of her death 11 years ago.

“During the 200, everybody in the crowd knew something was different,” Cross said. “I was coming around (the turn) in fourth place, and then all of a sudden, I don’t know what happened. There was a whole 100 left, but I came off the curve and I was done.” 

That's the kind of exciting finish she's become know for the last two springs.

Basketball was her first love. But she’s always been fast. Cross started running track when she was 11.

Later, she stopped and focused on hoops instead. But her future began to take shape again two falls ago when she showed up at Southfield, her third high school.

In part thanks to the support of former coach Calvin Johnson (now at Southfield-Lathrup), Cross found her way back to the track – and soon after, into the MHSAA record book.

“When I’m on a track, nobody can hurt me,” Cross said. “They can’t catch me.”

Cross went from unknown to champion in just a few months, breaking that 5-year-old all-MHSAA Finals record last spring by running the 400 in 54.29 seconds.

“A lot of it, I think, is her heart,” said Southfield coach Karla Crum, who took over for Johnson this spring. “She gives it her all every time she goes out on the track.”

And her all is something special, considering what else she had to overcome to achieve that milestone.  

Skin deep at first, then deeper

Cross’ melanoma, a form of skin cancer, was diagnosed in August of 2010. She fought it with medicine throughout her junior year and was still working against it when she set the record last spring.

Finally, in July, her doctor told her the melanoma was gone.

Fresh from that accomplishment and her future starting to look bright, Cross trained in the fall for indoor track season. She remembers feeling a pain in her stomach in late September or early October, but just ignored it until she couldn’t – because she collapsed.

This time, her doctor said it was lymphoma, another form of cancer which affects the lymph nodes.

There’d be chemotherapy.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘What? With what I just got through, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ I’m going to give up,” Cross said. “But that’s where the family I live with now came in. They said you’ve got to do it. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I did.”

At school, Cross still didn’t say much. “You want to do stuff to help her out, but she’s really quiet. It’s hard to know what she needs,” athletic director Timothy Conley said. To him, Cross’ record is simply “amazing.”

He’s also is the Bluejays’ football coach, and hence spends his share of time in the school weight room. He found out about Cross’ cancer only after asking her why she hadn’t been in to train – and Cross responded that she hadn’t received a release from her doctor.

Cross’ final chemo treatment was in March. When she runs Saturday, she’ll do so with two tumors – one behind her right ear and another behind her stomach. Both are benign and can’t harm her at this point. She hopes to have both removed this summer before she heads to college.

‘Competitive person, competitive mind’

Cross is a team captain this season, and has done all she could despite all she’s had to deal with physically over the last two years.

“She’s more serious than a lot of students,” Crum said. “She’s not silly. She more serious, more mature. I think that has a lot to do with the way she is.”

Cross eased back into running this spring, coming off her latest round of treatments. Her 400 times slowly fell back into fast, and Crum thinks Cross will break the record again this weekend.

She’s been able to focus on that as stability has come to the rest of her life. She’s become a part of the Graham family, and currently is living with Shauntai's older sister Staneisha, who is 23. Cross' grades are up, and she’s excited to get to Ypsilanti in the fall.

Cross plans to study social work at EMU, with a focus on working with children. That wouldn’t have been lost if she’d quit two weeks ago – her future college coaches said they’d still grant her scholarship because of how much they believe in her potential.

And Cross believes in it too. She plans to break 54 seconds Saturday – and leave one more lasting mark on her inspiring legacy.

“I’m ecstatic. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. Now I’m here,” Cross said. “The way I look at it, I’ve gotta show everybody that I’m still here.

“I’ve been looking forward to it all season, to get to show people that I’ve been down and out, but that doesn’t matter. I’m still here.”

Cross is a recipient of one of this week's Second Half High 5s. Click to read more about her inspirations and career aspirations.

PHOTO: Southfield senior Latipha Cross set the all-Finals record in the 400 meters in 2011, and will look to break it again Saturday at East Kentwood.

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).]