KINGSFORD — A season of steady improvement paid off for the Ontonagon girls track & field team Saturday as the Gladiators earned their first Upper Peninsula Division 3 Finals title in five years with 73 points.
They were followed by Rudyard with 64 and Stephenson with 54½.
“It was great,” said coach Brian Amos. “It was one of those seasons which was full of surprises. The girls just kept getting better. Surprisingly, in our first meet on a cold and rainy day in Ironwood (Kraemer Invitational), they started looking smooth. Their performance speaks for itself.”
Sophomore Lilly McIntyre won the 100-meter dash in a personal-best 13.7 seconds and classmate Makennah Uotila took long jump with a personal-best leap of 16 feet on a hot and humid day.
“I had a pretty good start in the 100,” said McIntyre. “The warm weather helped. I didn’t have to spend so much time getting warmed up.
“This is a big confidence builder. We had the best handoffs we had all year (in the 800 relay).
The Gladiators won that race in one minute, 55.25 seconds and the 1,600 relay (4:33.36).
Uotila added runner-up finishes in the 400 and 800 with personal-best times of 1:04.41 and 2:32.81, respectively.
“Those are tough races, especially with short recovery times in between,” she said. “I just try to pace myself for all events. Sixteen feet in long jump was my goal all season. I’m very excited.”
Rudyard sophomore Tristin Smith took the 400 (1:04) and was runner-up in the 1,600 (5:40.69).
“I try to start fast and stride it out,” said Smith. “It’s really good to have this competition, and it feels great to work hard all year and take a first up here. I had the second-fastest qualifying time. I knew I had a chance.”
Emma Bogacki added a first for the Bulldogs in discus (100-5).
Stephenson’s lone first came in pole vault where Daisy Grinsteiner cleared nine feet.
Mid Peninsula senior Daisy Englund won the 800 in a season-best 2:30.75 and was runner-up in the 100 (13.93).
“It’s such a hot day, and we never had competition like this,” said Englund, who will run at Ferris State next season. “I didn’t want to get boxed in. With 200 meters to go, I knew I had to kick it in. It was a relief to win the 800.”
Junior teammate Landry Koski, seeded eighth going into the 1,600, came from behind to win in a season-best 5:39.89, followed by Smith, Bessemer sophomore Natalie Stone (5:42.82) and Ewen-Trout Creek senior Elise Besonen (5:44.82).
“This is my favorite race,” she said. “I knew I had to beat two girls to place. I knew about Gwen Kangas (of Chassell), but I didn’t know about the girl from Bessemer. When I saw they were in the 5:40s, I knew I had to pick it up. After the first 800 I felt I had a chance, and with the Rudyard girl right next to me (during the final lap), I knew I had to kick it in.”
Kangas anchored the winning 3,200 relay, which was clocked in 11:09.64, and won the open 3,200 (12:58.8) followed by Besonen (13:14.38) and Koski (13:22.85).
“I just stayed positive,” she said. “Doing cross country helps quite a bit with all that running and conditioning. It’s just a matter of making sure you’re hydrated. We knew it was coming. You just have to prepare for this.”
Lake Linden-Hubbell took the 400 relay (54.7), edging Brimley by three tenths of a second, and freshman Abi Codere won the 100 hurdles in a personal-best 17.16.
“I think I had a good start,” said Codere. “It felt like my form was good. This is a big confidence builder and a good learning experience. I never expected this, but after one of our home meets, our coach told me I may have a chance.”
Pickford junior Lucy Bennin took the 200 (28.66), edging North Dickinson junior Ashton Hord by 11 hundredths of a second, and Lizzie Storey captured the 300 hurdles (51.59).
“I had a pretty good start in the 200 and really kicked it in at the end,” said Bennin. “I poured a glass of water on myself before the start, and it felt real good. That gave me a little bit of a cool down before the race. After looking at the forecast, we knew it’d be hot and it helped me prepare mentally.”
Ellie Delene provided Baraga with a first in high jump (4-11) and Jaylyne Lindemann won shot put (32-8), tossing an inch further than Republic-Michigamme’s Leah McCracken.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ontonagon's Nicole Lukkari anchors the 1,600 relay Saturday. (Middle) Chassell's Gwen Kangas, right, is followed by Ewen-Trout Creek's Elise Besonen in the 3,200. (Below) Lake Linden-Hubbell's Abi Codere, middle, wins the 100 hurdles. (Photos by Cara Kamps. Click to see more at 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).]