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.
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.
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.)