By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
We will say good-bye to a number of graduating champions at Saturday’s MHSAA Girls Track & Field Finals.
But it’s hard to not also be excited about some of the final legacy-making opportunities for outgoing seniors – and new chances to shine for a group of impressive rising athletes taking their places among the elite.
Below is a look at some of the teams and individuals to watch at Saturday’s girls meets. All events begin at 9 a.m. local time on both peninsulas.
Click for meet information including all qualifiers. Check out MHSAA.tv for live streaming of running events from both peninsulas, available with subscription and beginning at 10 a.m., and come back Saturday night for results as they come in and coverage of all seven meets on Second Half.
LP Division 1 at East Kentwood
Top Regional team scores: 1. Rockford 179, 2. Oak Park 152, 3. Grosse Pointe North 150, 4. Grosse Pointe South 149, 5. Salem 149.
Oak Park is the reigning champion and has won four of the last five titles in LPD1, also finishing runner-up in 2017. With contenders in nearly every running event, the Knights may be the favorites again. But keep an eye on Detroit Renaissance and Rockford, both also loaded with star power. Rockford was the runner-up last season, 6.5 points off the lead, while Renaissance finished sixth.
Dearborn Edsel Ford’s BreeAna Bates: The speedy sophomore finished ninth in the 100 and didn’t make the championship heat in the 200 last season, but she had the fastest 100 (11.82) at LPD1 Regionals and the second-fastest 200 (24.64).
Detroit Renaissance’s Kaila Jackson: A star already as a freshman, she could cap her first season with multiple titles entering with the second-fastest LPD1 Regional time in the 100 (11.98) and fastest in the 200 (24.37) plus as part of the fastest 400 and 800 relays.
Walled Lake Western’s Kennedy Jackson: Last season’s runner-up in the long jump had the best LPD1 Regional showing in that event (18.5.25) and the high jump (5-7) and the fifth-fastest time in the 100 hurdles (14.57).
Oak Park’s Aasia Laurencin: The champion in the 200 and runner-up in the 100 hurdles in 2018, Laurencin is one of many standouts for Oak Park (freshman Chloe Vines, sophomore Nysha Jordan and juniors Jayla Jones and N’Stajah Banks are perhaps the other most notable of numerous title contenders) and enters this weekend with the second-fastest LPD1 Regional time in the 100 hurdles (14.22), sixth-fastest in the 100 dash (12.23), fifth-fastest in the 200 (24.83) and as part of the second-fastest 800 relay.
White Lake Lakeland’s Grace Stark: The star sprinter and hurdler will try to cap her high school career with one more title after winning the 100 dash and 100 hurdles last season. She enters this weekend with the fastest LPD1 Regional time in that hurdles race (13.84) by more than three tenths of a second after setting the LPD1 Finals record in the event last year at 13.16.
Lake Orion’s Melissa Symons: After winning the 300 hurdles last season by nearly a second, the Dragons’ senior had the second-fastest LPD1 Regional time in that race (43.72) and third-fastest in the 100 hurdles (14.26) after also taking fourth in that event in 2018.
Rockford’s Ericka VanderLende: The Rams’ distance ace won the 1,600 last season and was runner-up in the 3,200, and she should make a run at three individual titles with the fastest LPD1 Regional times in the 1,600 (4:42.75) and 3,200 (10:33.32) and second-fastest in the 800 (2:13.08) trailing only Grand Haven standout Gabby Hentemann in that race.
LP Division 2 at Zeeland
Top Regional team scores: 1. Dearborn Divine Child 214, 2. Zeeland East 161.5, 3. Frankenmuth 154, 4. Corunna 129.25, 5. East Grand Rapids 123.
Zeeland East broke through last season for its first MHSAA Finals championship in this sport after finishing runner-up in 2017, and could be in the mix again of a closely-contested team race. Frankenmuth, Corunna, Saginaw and most of all Holland Christian also have the elite star power to make a run at the team title.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Jakarri Alven: The 400 champion as both a freshman and sophomore, Alven missed last year’s Finals with an injury but could make up for that this weekend. She had the top LPD2 Regional time in the 400 (58.57), the second-fastest in the 200 (25.82), the third-fastest in the 100 (12.48) and also will compete in long jump (16-6.5).
Allendale’s Brianna Bredeweg: After winning pole vault last season as a sophomore, Bredeweg enters with the highest LPD2 Regional vault (11-10) by 10 inches. She set the meet record last year at 12-7.
Ludington’s Emma Fountain: Last year’s 400 champion as a junior had the second-fastest LPD2 Regional time to Alven in that race (58.98) and also will run the 200 (26.74) and on the 3,200 relay.
Holland Christian’s Michelle Kuipers: The Maroons’ junior standout has won four championships, three as part of relays plus the 800 last season. Her LPD2 Regional time in the 800 (2:19.29) ranks sixth, her 1,600 time third (5:03.43) and she’ll be running on the fastest 1,600 and 3,200 relays.
Marysville’s Kaia Scheffler: After taking fourth in the 300 and seventh in the 100 hurdles last season as a sophomore, Scheffler will be aiming for her first titles entering with the top LPD2 Regional times in both races, 46.33 and 14.52 seconds, respectively.
Bridgeport’s Payten Williams: The Bearcats’ sprint star swept the 100 and 200 last season and will run for a repeat in the 100 (12.73) and as part of Bridgeport’s contending 400 relay. Freshman teammate Chaniya Madison will be among her top competition in the 100, entering with the fastest LPD2 Regional time of 12.18.
LP Division 3 at Jenison
Top Regional team scores: 1. Warren Michigan Collegiate 171, 2. Saugatuck 163.5, 3. Berrien Springs 157, 4. Pewamo-Westphalia 150, 5. Kent City 135.
Including last year’s co-champions St. Charles and Hart, six teams have claimed the overall title over the last five seasons. Pewamo-Westphalia last won in 2015 (and also 2013) and might be the favorite again – but watch especially for Shepherd, along with Quincy, St. Charles and Jackson Lumen Christi among many others.
Hart’s Adelyn Ackley: One of the state’s all-time great distance champions, Ackley will run her final high school races after claiming 3,200 titles last season and in 2016 and the last three LPD3 cross country championships. She enters this weekend with the third-fastest LPD3 Regional time in the 3,200 (10:57.22), fourth-fastest in the 1,600 (5:07.48) and running on a contending 3,200 relay.
Shepherd’s Amber Gall: The senior standout won the 800 and as part of the 3,200 relay in 2017 and just missed adding another title a year ago. But she could single-handedly alter the team standings in her final high school event, running on the fastest 1,600 relay, second-fastest 3,200 relay and entering with the fastest LPD3 Regional time in the 800 (2:12.50) and third-fastest in the 1,600 (5:06.07).
Jackson Lumen Christi’s Renae Kutcha: Last season’s 400 champion as a freshman has the fastest LPD3 Regional time on that race (57.40) and will run the 200 (26.99) plus on two relays including a contender in the 1,600.
Byron’s Sarah Marvin: The third-place finisher in both the shot put and discus as a freshman, she has the top LPD3 Regional throws in both by significant margins at 41-10.5 and 128-10, respectively.
Farwell’s Jenna Odykirk: The reigning champion in the 100 enters her last Finals with the fifth-fastest LPD3 Regional time in that race (tied – 12.90) and also should contend for a place in the 200 (26.91).
Hanover-Horton’s Judy Rector: After claiming the 800 and 1,600 titles last season as a junior, Rector will go after the double again with the second-fastest LPD3 Regional time in the 800 (2:13.73) and fifth-fastest in the 1,600 (5:08.65).
Onsted’s McKenna Russell: The standout junior hurdler will run three relays and only one individual race, the 300 hurdles. She won it in 2018 and enters with the second-fastest LPD3 Regional time (47.17) after finishing second two weeks ago to Quincy’s Madelyn Allman.
Muskegon Western Michigan Christian’s Abby VanderKooi: Considered by many the next great Michigan high school distance runner, the freshman had the best LPD3 Regional time in the 3,200 (10:36.17) by more than 18 seconds.
LP Division 4 at Hudsonville Baldwin Middle School
Top Regional team scores: Royal Oak Shrine 169, Pittsford 167.16, Marcellus 149, Fowler 142, Athens 140.
Fowler has taken turns winning or finishing second the last four seasons, but coming off last year’s title could be in line for a repeat this time. Pittsford is the reigning runner-up and should be right there again, with Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart and Addison among other interesting possibilities.
Royal Oak Shrine’s Ellie Kendell: Last season’s fourth-place finisher in the 1,600 and third placer in the 3,200 as a sophomore, she ran the fastest LPD4 Regional times in both at 5:17.25 and 11:35.62, respectively – the 3,200 time the fastest by more than 30 seconds.
Addison’s Ally McLouth: The Panthers’ standout could pile up points entering with the best long jump (17-2.5) from LPD4 Regionals plus the fastest 300 hurdles time (44.94) and second-fastest in the 100 hurdles (15.32). She finished second in long jump and third in the 300 as a sophomore a year ago.
Bridgman’s Mikaela Owen: Last season’s runner-up in the 100 and fifth-place finisher in the 200 as a sophomore, Owen had the fastest LPD4 Regional time in the 200 (26.36), second-fastest in the 100 (12.78), sixth-fastest in the 400 (1:02.64) and also the third-best long jump (16-5). Lincoln Alcona sophomore Lily Bilbey should be right there with her in all three races, with the fastest 100 (12.67) and second-fastest 200 (26.71) at LPD4 Regionals.
Fowler’s Alyssa Vandegriff: The Eagles’ senior standout won the high jump and 100 hurdles during last year’s title run (and the high jump in 2017 as well), and she enters her last Finals with the third-fastest LPD4 Regional time in the 100 hurdles (15.59), fourth-fastest in the 300 (48.12), tied for seventh-best high jump (4-11) and running on the fastest 800 relay.
Hillsdale Academy’s Katie VanHavel: The reigning long jump champion had the second-best leap to McLouth in all of LPD4 at their Regional two weeks ago (16-7). She’ll also run on two relays including a contender in the 800 to finish up her high school career.
UP Division 1 at Kingsford
Top Regional team scores: 1. Marquette 66, 2. Negaunee 56, 3. Sault Ste. Marie 45.
Negaunee broke Marquette’s seven-year hold on the UPD1 championship last season, outpacing the Redettes by 25.5 points. Both enter as Regional champions Saturday and appear nearly even on paper. Side note: The winners of all but one individual event in 2018 will be competing again this weekend.
Kingsford’s Olivia Allen: The senior standout will try to win four individual titles to add to her previous six solos and three championships as parts of relays. She won the 100, 200 and 400 last spring and enters with the fifth-fastest UPD1 Regional time in the 100 (13.61), second-fastest in the 200 (27.68) and second-fastest in the 400 (1:02.14), plus she’ll long jump (15-2.5).
Houghton’s Lilly Baker: The reigning pole vault champion tied with two others for the top vault at the UPD1 Regionals with an 8-6.
Marquette’s Rachael Hunt: After winning long jump and as part of the 800 relay as a junior, she’s set for a big Finals running on the fastest 400 and 800 relays and also entering with the fifth-fastest UPD1 Regional time in the 200 (28.16) and fourth-best long jump (15-4.5).
Sault Ste. Marie’s Emily McLean: Last season’s shot put champion – and meet record setter at 38-1.25 – had the top UPD1 Regional toss (39.2) by nearly five feet and also the fourth-best discus throw (95-7).
Negaunee’s Chloe Norman: The junior standout will try to add to titles won last year in the 300 hurdles and as part of the 3,200 relay, entering with the top UPD1 Regional showings in the high jump (5-0) and long jump (16-7.5), the latter by more than a foot. She also had the second-fastest 300 hurdles time (47.21) and fourth-fastest in the 100 hurdles (tied – 17.30).
Kingsford’s Rylee Palmer: Last season’s discus champ had the third-farthest UPD1 Regional toss (96-6.5) and also tied for the fourth-highest pole vault (8-0).
Negaunee’s Emily Paupore: After earning a relay win as a freshman, Paupore broke out last year with championships in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and as part of the 3,200 relay. Her 3,200 time of 11:25.52 was a meet record. She had the UPD1 Regional bests in the 800 (2:22.97), 1,600 (5:26.00) and 3,200 (11:59.61).
Menominee’s Mackenzie Wellner: The reigning champion in the 100 hurdles enters her sophomore Finals with the top UPD1 Regional times in the 100 hurdles (16.19) and 300 hurdles (46.73) and as part of contenders in the 400 and 800 relays.
UP Division 2 at Kingsford
Top Regional team scores: 1. St. Ignace 73, 2. Hancock 49.5, 3. Iron River West Iron County 45.
St. Ignace has won two straight UP Division 2 championship and three of the last five, and appears to be the team to chase again Saturday. The Saints won last season’s title by 70 points.
St. Ignace’s Elizabeth Becker: The Saints’ lead scorer last Finals won the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and as part of the 1,600 relay as a junior. She has the top UPD2 Regional times in the 800 (2:22.74), 1,600 (5:37.24) and 3,200 (12:42.24) and will help pace another contending 1,600 relay.
Bark River-Harris' Hailee Demers: After winning the 300 hurdles and as part of the 400 relay in UPD3 a year ago, Demers will make a run with the top UPD2 Regional time in the 300 (50.17), the second-fastest in the 100 dash (13.18) and as part of the fastest 400 relay and second-fastest 800.
St. Ignace’s Heather Lamb: The reigning long jump champion will go for the repeat as a junior entering with the farthest UPD2 Regional jump (15-9.5) by nearly 18 inches.
Manistique’s Ashley McDonald: Last season’s pole vault champion as a junior could finish up high school in a big way, entering with the best UPD2 Regional vault (8-6) by a foot plus as part of the fastest 1,600 and 3,200 relays.
Munising’s Madeleine Peramaki: The senior distance star won the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 in UPD3 last season and the latter two in UPD2 in 2017. She enters with the second-fastest UPD2 Regional times in all three races at 2:26.84, 5:41.24 and 13:20.24, respectively.
St. Ignace’s Ally Schultz: The Saints’ freshman enters with the top UPD2 Regional times in the 200 (27.46), 400 (1:02.34) and third-fastest in the 100 (13.22), plus will run on a contending 800 relay.
Iron River West Iron County’s Jordan Shamion: After taking third in both hurdles races as a freshman, she enters this weekend with the top UPD2 Regional time in the 100 hurdles (17.40) and second-fastest in the 300 (51.51).
UP Division 3 at Kingsford
Top Regional team scores: 1. Lake Linden-Hubbell 82, 2. Felch North Dickinson 72.5, 3. Stephenson 68.
Lake Linden-Hubbell has won the last two UPD3 championships, last season’s by 33 points ahead of runner-up North Dickinson. The Nordics look capable of giving a major push Saturday, and watch out as well for relay-strong Rock Mid-Peninsula.
Felch North Dickinson’s Masyn Alexa: The 100 and 200 champ last season as a sophomore will go for the repeats with the second-fastest UPD3 Regional times in both at 13.33 and 27.53, respectively. She also had the fastest 400 time of 1:02:41 two weeks ago.
Lake Linden-Hubbell’s Jamie Hendrickson: She’s won the high jump and two relay titles both of her first two seasons of high school. Hendrickson enters with weekend with a UPD3 Regional-best high jump of 5-0, third-best long jump of 14-7, fifth-best 400 of 1:06.72 and as part of the top 1,600 relay.
Lake Linden-Hubbell’s MacKenzie LePage: Last season’s pole vault champion as a junior tied for the top UPD3 Regional vault of 8-6 and also will compete in high jump (4-6), long jump (13-8) and 100 hurdles (18.54).
Ontonagon’s Holly Jo Wardynski: The reigning discus champion enters her last high school Finals with the top UPD3 Regional toss (108-2) by more than five feet and also will throw shot (28-9).
PHOTOS: (Top) Oak Park’s Aasia Laurencin and White Lake Lakeland’s Grace Stark push through the finish of the 100-meter hurdles race at last season’s LPD1 Finals, as Stark set a meet record in the race. (Middle) Negaunee’s Emily Paupore breaks down the stretch during one of her three UPD1 championship wins in 2018. (Click to see more from 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).]