By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
HUDSONVILLE — It was supposed to be the Sekayi Bracey and Anna Jefferson show.
And, to a great extent, it was.
Bracey added two more victories to her resume, finishing her outstanding career at East Kentwood with 10 individual championships in MHSAA track and field meets.
Jefferson led Oak Park to a third straight Lower Peninsula Division 1 team championship and all-division MHSAA Finals records in the 800 and 400 relays. The Knights had 81.5 points, while runner-up Ann Arbor Pioneer had 64.
While Bracey and Jefferson added to their legacies, Northville senior Chloe Abbott upstaged both all-time great Michigan sprinters by beating each of them head-to-head in events they've previously won.
First, Abbott ran 53.10 seconds to take down Jefferson in the 400-meter dash, an event Jefferson won in 2013 and 2014 before taking second in 2015. Jefferson took third Saturday.
Less than an hour later, Abbott pulled off a double that is extremely difficult under most circumstances, but more so considering her primary competition was going for her fourth MHSAA championship in the event. Yet, Abbott charged from behind to win the 200 in 24.03, while Bracey finished fourth in a race that featured six times of 24.51 seconds or faster.
Not yet worn out from those two exhausting races, Abbott anchored Northville to victory in the 1,600 relay, the final event, giving her three victories in the last six races of the day. She was also on the fourth-place 800 relay team, giving her a hand in 35 of third-place Northville's 50 points.
The first thing Abbott did after winning the 400 was try to forget about it.
"I talked to my friends," she said. "I relaxed myself a little bit, kind of numbed myself to the 400 zone. If you think about it for a long time, you're like, 'Wow, I did so good in the 400.' You kind of get comfortable with it. I wanted to forget it and focus on the 200. I'm so glad I was able to pull out another win. I'm surprising myself today."
Abbott didn't have the MHSAA Finals pedigree of Bracey or Jefferson.
In 2013, when Bracey and Jefferson were winning championships as freshmen, Abbott was 27th in the 200, her only event that year. She took sixth in the 100 and ninth in the 200 as a sophomore, while helping Northville get two top-three finishes in relays. As a junior, she was third in the 400 and seventh in the 200, adding a third-place finish on the 1,600 relay.
Abbott didn't beat Jefferson in the 400 until last summer, after the high school season.
"Ever since then, I didn't want to get beat by her again," Abbott said. "So, I kept pushing and knew I could do it."
Abbott had never beaten Bracey until Saturday.
"I never even dreamed of beating Sekayi," Abbott said. "I knew how great she was. She hasn't had a lot of competition all season. I figured she was going to come out and push it today, because she finally has some competition. I was nervous about that, because she's very good. I wanted to make sure I got that out of my head, forget about the people and just focus on my race and what I can control."
Bracey lost in a 200 final only once in her four-year career before Saturday, that coming her freshman year when Rockford's Sammy Cuneo beat her in the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Division 1 team championship meet.
"I don't even know what happened," Bracey said. "I was so frustrated when they were all coming up on me. I'm like, 'What's going on?' I never had that in my life. It was confusing."
Abbott and Bracey will be teammates at Purdue University beginning next season.
"I told her, '1 and 2, that's it, because now we're a team,'" Abbott said. "I wanted her and me to show out for Purdue and show out for our schools."
Bracey won the 100 for the fourth straight year in 12.08 seconds. She won her third long jump title with a leap of 18 feet, 10 inches. She jumped only once in the Finals to preserve herself for her track events.
Jefferson helped Oak Park break two all-division Finals records set by Detroit Mumford in 2005 with times of 1:36.66 in the 800 relay and 46.28 in the 400 relay.
"That was special," Oak Park coach Brandon Jiles said. "We knew we could run fast in the 4x1 and 4x2. It was all about putting it on the track. Those times are the fastest times by far that have been run in the state. For those kids to run that fast, they were really rolling. Everything had paid off, the hard work."
The Knights got off to a shaky start, with Jefferson failing to qualify for the championship race in the 100 hurdles and the 3,200 relay team placing out of the scoring with a ninth-place finish.
"It started out tough, but the kids were resilient and they fought and they showed they could win a tight meet, as opposed to a blowout like the last couple of years," Jiles said.
Oak Park's individual champions were sophomore Dorriann Coleman, who took the 800 in 2:10.20, and senior Brianna Holloway, who set a meet record in the 300 hurdles with a time of 42.71.
Greenville junior Landon Kemp was another of the stars of the meet. The highlight of her day was breaking the all-division Finals record in the pole vault with a leap of 13 feet, 4 inches. She also took second in the long jump at 18-5.5 and fifth in the 100 hurdles in 14.87.
Other individual champions were Ann Arbor Pioneer's Britten Bowen in the 100 hurdles (14.08); Port Huron's Rachel Bonner in the 1,600 (4:49.29); Farmington's Maddy Trevisan in the 3,200 (10:35.85); Grand Blanc's Quiara Wheeler in the discus (136-2); Grosse Pointe South's Kayli Johnson in the shot put (44-7.75); and Macomb Dakota's Kayla Dobies in the high jump (5-7).
Ann Arbor Pioneer won the 3,200 relay in 8:56.52.
PHOTOS: (Top) Northville's Chloe Abbott takes the lead on the way to one of her two championships Saturday. (Middle) East Kentwood's Sekayi Bracey won the ninth and 10th individual Finals titles of her career. (Below) Oak Park's 800 relay was among significant contributors to the team's overall LP Division 1 championship. (Photos by Carter Sherline and John Brabbs/RunMichigan.com.)
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).]