Oak Park senior – Track & Field
Jefferson this weekend will finish one of the finest careers in recent Michigan high school track & field history. She’s won two individual MHSAA Finals championships and run on four title-winning relays over the last three seasons and holds the Lower Peninsula Division 1 and all-Finals record in the 400 meters of 53.50 seconds, which she set as a sophomore. She shined again in her final local meet Friday, winning both the 400 (54.93) and 100 hurdles (14.10) at the Oakland County Championships to earn the Michigan National Guard Performance of the Week.
Jefferson’s times Friday either set or tied her lowest in those events this season, and she’ll enter Saturday’s Finals having run the second-fastest LP Division 1 Regional times in both races. After winning the 400 as both a freshman and sophomore, Jefferson finished second in both that race and the 200 at the 2015 Finals. She decided to take up hurdles again this spring to help her improve her 400 time, and her fastest 200 (24.27) and 300 hurdles times this season (43.89) according to Athletic.net also would have placed her among the fastest Regional finishers in those races across the division this spring.
She also ran on winning 400 (47.78) and 800 (1:38.74) relays at the Oakland County meet as Oak Park won the team title. Her 400 relay enters this weekend with the top Regional time in the division, and her 800 relay posted the second-fastest. Jefferson has signed to continue her track career this fall at University of Virginia; she is undecided on a major but carries a 3.6 grade-point average. She also has run cross country at Oak Park throughout her varsity career.
Coach Brandon Jiles said: “Anna has so many great qualities that make her a special athlete. A few of the things that stand out are her commitment, reliability, leadership and how quickly she adapts and learns. Throughout her high school career, Anna has been a major team player, not only in just track but also cross country, going above and beyond to help the team score points. In this day and age it’s rare for an athlete to sacrifice individual glory for team success; Anna has done that. She also has handled business academically, being an honor roll student every semester of high school. She has been a major part of the success and growth of Oak Park High School track and field. We are going to miss her.”
Performance Point: “(Oakland County) was one of the toughest meets I’ve had this season, with the exception of Regionals. It really gave me insight into how I need to perform at states, what I need to work on, and my strong points and weak points. I learned I have to have a better recovery, take one race at a time, (learned) small things I need to critique in hurdles. I need to keep working harder in the 400, and (improve) some small things in my relays.”
Jumping hurdles (again): “I did hurdles in middle school. I really wanted to get my 400 time down, or just in general get my times down, and in middle school I noticed running hurdles made me faster. I’d see other people (who added hurdles) run open events a lot quicker than they used to be, and my mom wanted me to go back to running hurdles – I was like, why not? It wasn’t too hard, but it was a little tough. I had to learn to adjust to hurdle workouts; they do longer workouts than sprinters and quarter-milers. The one thing I learned that comes with hurdles is your muscles need to adjust to hurdles. My body got used to it, and it got easier to adjust now.”
Lasting legacy: “I just want to be remembered as a person that worked hard, was team-oriented, and whenever it came down to crunch time and I had to perform, that I tried my best and was a dependable teammate. I’d love to win the 400, but my dream scenario for this weekend is to come home knowing I ran my races the best I could, like I was supposed to, and that my coaches are proud of me and I’m proud of myself for running the type of races I have.”
Home at Virginia: “I really felt comfortable there. Comfort is a really big thing to me. … It has an old feel but a modern feel to it also. The whole track team is like one family; there aren’t cliques like distance runners with distance runners, sprinters with sprinters. Everyone mingles together, everyone from different sports, and the coaches were really welcoming and everything was just beautiful. It was kinda like falling in love with a school at first sight.”
Questions & Answers: “I know I really like science class, and I also like math too. With science, you get to explore a lot of different things, and a lot of things about the human body interest me – I have a lot of questions about it, like what makes this work like that, how it reacts to something else. Math, it’s numbers, and numbers don’t lie. With math there are a bunch of equations and calculations to go through, but (there’s nothing) more accurate than numbers, and you can’t get better than that.”
– Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor
Every week during the 2015-16 school year, Second Half and the Michigan 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 protecting lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster.
Previous 2015-16 honorees
May 25: Connor Bandel, Oxford boys track & field - Read
May 18: Kalyn Breckenridge, Birch Run girls soccer - Read
May 11: Morgan Beadlescomb, Algonac boys track & field - Read
May 4: Abby Krzywiecki, Farmington Hills Mercy softball - Read
April 27: Mike Mokma, Holland Christian baseball - Read
April 20: Abby Divozzo, Cadillac girls soccer - Read
March 30: Cassius Winston, Detroit U-D Jesuit boys basketball - Read
March 23: Kierra Fletcher, Warren Cousino girls basketball - Read
March 16: Jacob Montague, Grosse Pointe South swimming & diving - Read
March 9: Kyle Tuttle, St. Charles boys bowling - Read
March 2: Brittney Schnicke, Caledonia girls bowling - Read
Feb. 24: Kamari Newman, Detroit East English boys basketball - Read
Feb. 17: Jason Whitens, Powers North Central boys basketball - Read
Feb. 10: Rachel Hogan, Grand Ledge gymnastics - Read
Feb. 3: Nehemiah Mork, Midland Dow swimming & diving - Read
Jan. 27: Mardrekia Cook, Muskegon girls basketball - Read
Jan. 20: Sage Castillo, Hartland wrestling - Read
Jan. 13: Rob Zofchak, Dexter swimming & diving - Read
Jan. 6: Tyler Deming, Caro wrestling – Read
Dec. 15: Jordan Weber, East Jordan boys basketball – Read
Dec. 8: Kaitlyn Geers, Kent City girls basketball – Read
PHOTOS: (Top) Oak Park's Anna Jefferson clears a hurdle during Friday's Oakland County Championships at Waterford Mott. (Middle) Jefferson leads the competition during one of her four individual or relay wins at the meet. (Photos by Dave McCauley/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."
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).]