Oak Park Gets Win that Matters Most
June 1, 2019
By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
KENTWOOD – The Oak Park girls track & field team won the final event of Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals.
That victory in the 1,600 relay was the Knights’ lone victory of the meet. However, a lack of individual winners didn’t prevent them from going back-to-back as overall champions.
Oak Park’s depth was on display as it scored 74 points to win the Finals at East Kentwood High School. Detroit Renaissance took runner-up with 71 points, while Rockford was third with 69.
The Knights have won five Division 1 titles over the last six years.
“A complete team win, and we were solid across the board,” Oak Park coach Brandon Jiles said. “I think it’s the first championship we’ve won where we’ve only won one event, but they placed in everything else so it worked out for us. It was a great meet.”
Oak Park won the 1,600 relay with Jayla Jones, Tamyra Todd, Kourtney Kennard and Chloe Vines in a meet record-breaking time of 3:45.13.
“I’m so humbled and excited,” Vines said. “I’m proud of myself because there are times I don’t think I’m capable of doing certain things, but my teammates trusted me. The girls with me are all underclassmen and they are so motivational and inspiring. They make me want to do great.”
Jiles believed his team had the talent and depth to win even without notching first-place finishes.
“We were really balanced across the board this year,” Jiles said. “We weren’t exceptional in anything, but we were really good in a lot of things.
“It’s a little bit sweeter when you can win a tight battle with two other great teams. Renaissance was outstanding in sprints, and Rockford was amazing with their distance and overall team. I have a lot of respect for those teams, and we had to get the best out of our kids to even think about winning.”
Rockford senior Ericka VanderLende won the 1,600 (4:41.00) and 3,200 (10.24.57) and finished runner-up in the 800.
“I was really happy to complete all three events and not completely fall apart at the end, so I could get all the points I could for my team,” VanderLende said. “I was really happy to get two PRs (personal records) and then just come back and finish strong in my last race ever for Rockford.”
VanderLende won the 1,600 a year ago and placed runner-up in the 3,200.
“I just wanted to give it my best effort and go home knowing that I did all I could and laid it all on the line,” VanderLende said.
Her run at three titles was spoiled by Grand Haven senior Gabby Hentemann, who clocked a winning time of 2:08.70 to win the 800.
Hentemann, a senior, missed last year’s Finals due to a foot injury.
“I was in a boot cheering for my teammates last year after suffering a stress fracture,” Hentemann said. “It was a very painful and long recovery, so being able to just race today was a huge opportunity.
“It was very emotional for me to come back and win because my coaches and teammates watched me struggle the past year mentally and physically to recover from this injury.”
Detroit Renaissance freshman Kaila Jackson had an impressive debut and claimed a victory in the 200 (24.04), while finishing runner-up in the 100.
“I wanted to push myself harder after the 100 so I could win the 200,” Jackson said. “Most people get angry, but I build my anger up and take it out on the track. It was a great experience for my first state meet with the crowd and all the other runners. We pushed each other, and it was amazing.”
Jackson’s teammate, Leeah Burr, won the 400 in a time of 54.17.
White Lake Lakeland’s Grace Stark repeated in the 100 hurdles (13.43).
Other individual winners included: East Kentwood’s Qe’Neisha Young (100), Troy’s Lauren Fulcher (300 hurdles), East Kentwood’s Belle Okoroafo (discus), Dexter’s Nicole Bow (pole vault), Okemos’ Jasmine Clerkley (shot put), Mona Shores’ Elizabeth Knoll (high jump) and Walled Lake Western’s Kennedy Jackson (long jump).
PHOTOS: (Top) Oak Park celebrates its fifth Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship over the last six seasons. (Middle) Rockford's Ericka VanderLende capped her high school career with two more individual titles. (Photos by Carter Sherline. Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper
By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com
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."
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).]