Norinh Fueled for Final HS Title Chase

May 24, 2018

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

ZEELAND – Suenomi Norinh was disappointed when she didn’t qualify for the MHSAA Track & Field Finals as a freshman.

It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Zeeland East standout.

Norinh used it as motivation, and it helped create an inner desire to excel through the remainder of her high school career.

“It definitely opened my eyes to see that I needed to work a little harder at it,” Norinh said. “I think it shaped me into the person I am today.”

And that person is now an accomplished and versatile track star who has won back-to-back Lower Peninsula Division 2 titles in the high jump and is headed to the University of Missouri.

Zeeland East coach Josh Vork said Norinh’s absence from the 2015 Finals was a major turning point in her development.

“She had a really rough day at Regionals that year, and I could tell that really motivated her,” he said. “She wasn’t going to let that happen again, so her sophomore year she came in ready to attack every single practice and not take any days easy.

“Now that she has grown and matured and gotten stronger, she continues to push and push and wants to see the most she can get out of herself.”

Norinh, 18, will compete in her final high school meet next Saturday on her home track at Zeeland.

She’ll take part in four events: high jump, long jump and the 100 and 300-meter hurdles.

Norinh hopes to again repeat in the high jump while avenging a pair of narrow losses from a year ago.

“It will be special to be running at home for the last time, and the high jump event means a lot to me,” Norinh said. “I’m going to do everything I can to defend that, but if it’s not meant to be then it’s not meant to be and that’s OK, too. But I really want that one.”

Norinh took second in the long jump last season, as well as in the 100 hurdles. The latter is an event she’s been eyeing since last year’s painstakingly close finish.

She was runner-up in the 100 by the narrowest of margins to South Christian’s Mariel Bruxvoort – Bruxvoort edged Norinh by two thousandths of a second. Norinh also took sixth in the 300 as Bruxvoort, now a senior, won that race as well.

“She’s been looking forward to going against Mariel again this year, and all year she asked me if there were any meets the same as South Christian,” Vork said. “She really wants to go against Mariel, and it will be a good match-up.”

“She beat me by one thousandth of a second, and that pushes me because one thousandth of a second is nothing,” Norinh said. “It’s crazy, and it’s like a hair crossing the finish line before someone else. She pushes me to be even better, and that’s a good thing. We talk all the time, and we’re friendly rivals.

“I kept asking coach if she was going to be at one of our meets because I was excited for some competition. I don’t get that very often.” 

Norinh won four Regional championships last weekend in preparation for the Finals as the Chix edged Holland Christian for the overall team title.

Vork said she possesses all the physical abilities, and the work ethic, to cap her career in style.

“She’s incredibly physically gifted, and you don’t get to this point without having great physical tools, but she is, and has always been, the hardest worker on our team,” he said. “Nobody pushes themselves more than Suenomi does, and no one wants to be great more than Suenomi does – and that shows every day at practice.

“There have been days where she asks for more to do at practice because she doesn’t feel like she got a good enough workout, and I think that’s the kind of mentality that creates the champion that she is.”

Norinh’s martial arts background, as well as support from her parents, helped stir her competitiveness.

“I’ve done sports all my life, and my parents always drive us to work as hard as we can and give our all in everything,” Norinh said. “Martial arts taught me a lot, and I’m super competitive. No one likes to lose, and if I lose, I’m not going to give it to you easily.”

Norinh will be the catalyst in Zeeland East’s bid to win the team Division 2 championship as well. The Chix finished runner-up to Lansing Waverly by a single point last season.

“If things go our way, we have a good chance at it,” Vork said. “It’s a tough field, but I expect us to be in the mix.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Zeeland East’s Suenomi Norinh clears the bar on the way to repeating as Division 2 high jump champion last spring. (Middle) Norinh sprints toward the finish during the 300 hurdles championship race in 2017. (Click for more from

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).]