Performance: Lakeland's Grace Stark

June 2, 2017

Grace Stark
White Lake Lakeland sophomore – Track & Field

The Eagles’ speedy standout has made significant strides – literally – this season, cutting more than a second off her fastest 100-meter hurdles time from 2016. How much she’s improved in that race gained the most notice at Friday’s Oakland County Championships when Stark won in 13.54 seconds, earning the Michigan Army National Guard “Performance of the Week.” If she can repeat that time at Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals, she’ll break the all-Finals record set by Ann Arbor Pioneer’s Candice Davis in 2003.

Stark’s fastest 100 hurdles time as a freshman was 14.64 seconds, and she also ran 11.82 in the 100 dash. She approached the dash personal record as well at the Oakland County meet, winning in 11.86. She’s undefeated in both the 100 dash and 100 hurdles this season, plus won a Regional title in the 200 in a personal-record 24.99 seconds. Stark owns Lakeland’s records in the 100, 100 hurdles and 200 and as part of the 400 and 800 relays, the last two helped of course by a number of talented teammates, including a strong senior class finishing up this weekend. 

After developing bursitis in a hip over the summer, Stark took six weeks off from training. She upped her workouts to near-normal in December and competed indoor before showing her advancing speed on the outdoor track. Also a gymnast during elementary and middle school, Stark focuses solely on track now but said her time on the mat helped her improve physically and become more disciplined. She carries a 3.9 grade-point average, showing discipline and determination in the classroom as well.

Coach John Kababik said: "Grace is the fastest sprinter that I have coached in 40 years of coaching Lakeland girls track. What makes her so good is not only the talent she was born with, but the single-minded determination to be the best. She runs track both in season and out as a club runner. Grace was very good as a freshman, but she has improved by a full second over the last year in the hurdles. For sprinters to improve that much is not common. She came into high school fast, but she’s getting better due to the fact she’s so conscious of her technique. She’s just driven. She wants to be better, and she’s so knowledgeable that she’ll talk to me about former Olympic champions and the techniques they used. Grace will continue to break records and improve because that is who she is: that is part of her personality."

Performance Point: “I think I had a better start that day,” Stark said of the Oakland County hurdles race. “I got out to the first hurdle, and actually I’ve been working on my arms – working on not raising over hurdles, but keeping them low and right in front of me. … I thought I’d pulled off a good time, but I didn’t know it was good enough for a state record. I hit the last hurdle, and I didn’t know how much that slowed me down.”

Give it up for Gail: “Gail Devers (a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in 1992 and 1996), she did the 100 and she did the hurdles too, and she’s the big person I look up to. I’ve been told she has a similar body structure to me, so I thought, well, she’s my height, she did the hurdles and the dash, so she’s very similar to me. And she’s someone I’ve been told to watch by my coaches."

Mat time pays off: “(Gymnastics) made me stronger, my whole body. I did a lot of sprints toward the vault table, and I thought that helped. And the technique we had; it taught me a lot about discipline, helped me prevent injuries, all the workouts that we did.” 

Fun to be fast: “I like the pressure of (racing). I like being out on the line, going off and being in the race. I like the thrill of it, really. Not knowing who is going to win, how the race is going to turn out. And giving all of yourself to something you care about is really fun.”

Difference in the details: “I take time with things, make sure they’re done right before I finish them. I think that reflects in both (athletics and academics) how I get stuff done. I’m very critical of myself. If it’s not done almost perfect, I find something to work on or something to fix.” 

- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Every week during the 2016-17 school year, Second Half and the Michigan Army National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.

The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and responds as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our nation's freedom or protect lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster. 

Previous 2016-17 honorees:
May 25: Brendon Gouin, Gaylord golf Read
May 18: Hannah Ducolon, Bay City All Saints softball – Read
May 11: Mason Phillips, Salem track & field Read
May 4: Lillian Albaugh, Farwell track & field Read
April 27: Amber Gall, Shepherd track & field  Read
April 20: Sloane Teske, East Grand Rapids tennis Read
March 30: Romeo Weems, New Haven basketball Read
March 23: Jaycie Burger and Maddie Clark, Pittsford basketball Read
March 16: Camden Murphy, Novi swimming & diving Read
March 9: Ben Freeman, Walled Lake Central wrestling Read
March 2: Joey Mangner, Chelsea swimming & diving Read
Feb. 23: Isabelle Nguyen, Grosse Pointe North gymnastics – Read
Feb. 16: Dakota Hurbis, Saline swimming & diving – Read
Feb. 2: Foster Loyer, Clarkston basketball Read
Jan. 26: Nick Jenkins, Detroit Catholic Central wrestling – Read
Jan. 19: Eileene Naniseni, Mancelona basketball Read
Jan. 12: Rory Anderson, Calumet hockey – Read
Dec. 15: Demetri Martin, Big Rapids basketball Read
Dec. 1: Rodney Hall, Detroit Cass Tech football Read
Nov. 24: Ally Cummings, Novi volleyball Read
Nov. 17: Chloe Idoni, Fenton volleyball Read
Nov. 10: Adelyn Ackley, Hart cross country Read
Nov. 3: Casey Kirkbride, Mattawan soccer – Read
Oct. 27: Colton Yesney, Negaunee cross country Read
Oct. 20: Varun Shanker, Midland Dow tennis Read
Oct. 13: Anne Forsyth, Ann Arbor Pioneer cross country – Read
Oct. 6: Shuaib Aljabaly, Coldwater cross country – Read
Sept. 29: Taylor Seaman, Brighton swimming & diving – Read
Sept. 22: Maggie Farrell, Battle Creek Lakeview cross country – Read
Sept. 15: Franki Strefling, Buchanan volleyball – Read
Sept. 8: Noah Jacobs, Corunna cross country – Read

PHOTO: (Top) White Lake Lakeland's Grace Stark clears a hurdle during a race this season. (Middle) Stark begins to break away from the pack. (Action photos courtesy of the White Lake Lakeland athletic department; head shot courtesy of the Oakland Press.)

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).]