Winners of 26 individual titles from the 2021 Girls Track & Field Finals will be back at Saturday’s Lower Peninsula championship meets hosted by Rockford, Ada Forest Hills Eastern, Kent City and Hudsonville Baldwin Middle School.
Below is a glance at team contenders and individuals to watch in all four divisions.
Division 1 at Rockford
Team forecast: Oak Park has been the standard most of the last decade, last season winning its third-straight Division 1 championship and sixth in seven seasons (not counting the COVID-canceled 2020 season). Detroit Renaissance finished runner-up for the second straight Finals, but has the star power and depth to make a run at its first championship since finishing a run of 10 titles in 11 years in 2007. Rockford, Ann Arbor Huron and Ann Arbor Pioneer are others with an intriguing mix of possible event champions and qualifiers in numerous events.
Julia Flynn, Traverse City Central senior: Flynn has been among the state’s elite distance runners every fall and spring since the start of her high school career, and she enters her final race day for Central pursuing a first championship as the top seed in the 1,600 (4:53.88), second seed in the 800 (2:13.51) and fourth seed in the 3,200 (10:55.36).
Kaila Jackson, Detroit Renaissance senior: The three-time Finals sprint champion could make a run at the all-Finals records in the 100 and 200 as she enters her last championship meet seeded first in the 100 (11.52) and 200 (24.17) and likely to run on the top-seeded 400 and third-seeded 800 relays. That 100 qualifying time would break the all-Finals record of 11.54 run by Mumford’s Shayla Mahan in 2006.
Sophia Mettes, Dexter senior: Last season’s pole vault champion is the second seed with her Regional vault of 12-3. But she has the highest vault in Michigan this season by six inches at 13-6 from her league meet three weeks ago.
Arianne Olson, Holland West Ottawa junior: She finished only four seconds off the lead as the runner-up in last year’s 3,200, and she’s seeded first in that race (10:18.57) by 24 seconds. She’s also seeded second in the 1,600 (4:55.85) and could run on multiple relays.
Mackenzie Robinson, Ann Arbor Huron junior: She seeded right after Jackson in both the 100 (11.66) and 200 (24.36) and is likely to run on the second-seeded 400 relay and third-seeded 1,600 relay as well. She was sixth in the 200 and seventh in the 100 last season.
Abigail Russell, Allen Park sophomore: She also could take a major step this weekend after finishing 15th in shot put last season. This time she’s seeded first both in shot put (43-0) and discus (131-5), and both by impressive margins.
Nonah Waldron, Oak Park junior: She won both the 100 hurdles and 300 hurdles at her Finals debut last season, and she’s seeded first in the 100 hurdles this time (13.88) by half a second, and seeded second in the 300 (42.66) only to sophomore teammate Morgan Roundtree. Waldron also will run on the top-seeded 1,600 and second-seeded 800 relays. She and Roundtree (42.42) should make a run at the all-Finals 300 record of 42.23 seconds.
Division 2 at Ada Forest Hills Eastern
Team forecast: Petoskey last season became the seventh team over the last eight LPD2 Finals to win the team championship. This season’s race is difficult to forecast. East Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Christian both could score major points in distance competition, with the Eagles showing potential in field events as well. Madison Heights Lamphere, New Boston Huron, Allendale, Bridgeport, Petoskey for a repeat – in a low-scoring meet, all could have a chance, especially considering Petoskey was the only team to score more than 29 points last season.
Elizabeth Anderson, New Boston Huron junior: After finishing third in the 100 and 400 and fourth in the 200 last season, Anderson could climb the podium multiple times. She’s seeded first in the 200 (25.48) and 400 (56.90) and fifth in the 100 (12.45).
Madelyn Frens, Grand Rapids Christian senior: The LPD2 cross country champion in the fall also is back after winning the 3,200 a year ago. She’s seeded first in the 3,200 (10:58.33) by nearly 12 seconds and fourth in the 1,600 (5:04.61), and she’ll also possibly run on the second-seeded 3,200 relay.
Ella Jenkins, Warren Regina junior: A qualifier in the 100 hurdles last season who finished 11th in the preliminary, she’s improved literally with leaps and bounds. Jenkins is seeded first in both the 100 hurdles (14.95) and 300 hurdles (45.20) and could also run on the 1,600 relay.
Chaniya Madison, Bridgeport senior: The reigning champion in the 100 and 200 also won the 100 as a freshman. She’s seeded third in that race (12.36) for Saturday, her time only a tenth of a second from topping the list, and she’ll also likely run on the 400 relay and top-seeded 800 relay.
Reese Powers, Marysville senior: The reigning 400 champion is seeded second to Anderson in that race (58.77) and second in the 800 as well (2:19.58) after finishing 10th in that race last season. She also will run on the 1,600 relay.
Ryann Rohrer, Ludington senior: Her third place in shot put last season was only 3½ feet off the lead, and she returns as the top seed in that event (44-6) by 3 feet, 7 inches. She’s also the fourth seed in the discus (122-6).
Division 3 at Kent City
Team forecast: Pewamo-Westphalia has been the standard for most of the last decade with four championships over the last eight seasons (not counting canceled 2020), and the Pirates and Grass Lake tied for the title a year ago. Qualifiers throughout the meet should have P-W contending again – but Hart’s distance and relay talent might make it the favorite. Onsted also has high-scoring potential with two top-seeded relays and two of the top three seeds in the 400.
Lexus Bargesser, Grass Lake senior: The future Indiana basketball player missed her entire senior hoops season because of a knee injury but will be back this weekend as a five-time individual champion after winning the 100, 200 and 400 last season. She’ll run just the 400 this time, seeded seventh (1:00.36).
Lani Bloom, Ithaca senior: She’s looking to add to her 800 and 1,600 championships won last season and LPD3 cross country championship won in the fall. She’s seeded second in the 800 (2:18.22), fourth in the 1,600 (5:04.77), fifth in the 3,200 (11:18.28) and will run on the top-seeded 3,200 relay.
Allison Chmielewski, Roscommon senior: Last season’s runner-up in the 800 and 1,600 has been one of the state’s top distance runners throughout her career and will finish with a chance to be multi-event champion. She’s seeded first in the 1,600 (5:01.94), third in the 3,200 (11:12.25) and fourth in the 800 (2:21.66).
Mickenzie Brancheau, Kent City senior: The reigning high jump champ is among 10 who qualified with a Regional jump of 5-0 to 5-4.
Audrianna Enns, Hart senior: She has a chance to be high points scorer as Hart goes for the team title, seeded first in the 800 (2:16.25), sixth in the 1,600 (5:07.55) and running on two top-four seeded relays.
Kylee Poulton, Holland Black River senior: She could finish her high school career with one of Saturday’s biggest performances in any division, entering as the top seed in the 100 (12.23), 200 (25.39) and 400 (57.24) and running on the 1,600 relay. She finished second in the 100, third in the 200 and fourth in the 400 last season.
Annabelle Smith, Blissfield senior: The reigning long jump champion is seeded sixth (16-5½) in that event and also fourth in the 100 (12.65). She’ll also run the 200.
Division 4 at Hudsonville Baldwin Middle School
Team forecast: Fowler has won five of the last 10 championships including most recently in 2018 and 2019, and the Eagles are strong in relays with scoring possibilities all over this meet. Reigning champion Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart has three top seeds and relay strength as well, and Hillsdale Academy has two top-seeded relays and a third top seed in long jump that could put it in contention. Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, moving over after running in Division 3 last spring, also has a strong opportunity with distance and relay power.
Nicole Olivieri, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart senior: Last season’s 400 champion is seeded first in that race (58.11) and the 200 (26.57) and will run on two top-four relays as well.
Aiden Harrand, Buckley sophomore: She won the 1,600 and was second in the 800 in 2021, and enters this weekend seeded first in the 800 (2:20.66), second in the 1,600 (5:05.54) and fourth in the 3,200 (11:49.22).
Makenna Scott, Maple City Glen Lake senior: Last season’s 3,200 champ and 1,600 runner-up is seeded first in the 3,200 (11:03.29) and third in the 800 (2:22.80) and 1,600 (5:09.92).
Jocelyn Hall, Athens junior: The reigning 100 hurdles champion is seeded third in that race (16.75) and will run on the sixth-seeded 400 relay.
Tara Townsend, Frankfort senior: She’s seeking to finish with her third pole vault championship in three tries (with 2020 canceled). She’s seeded second at 8-9 but has the sixth-best vault (tied) in the state this spring at 11-6. She’s also seeded fifth in the 100 (13.19), fourth in the 200 (26.96) and will run on the fourth-seeded 400 relay.
Emma Valentine, Morrice senior: The reigning high jump champ has tied for the sixth-best in the state this spring (5-6) and enters as the top seed with a 5-4 Regional jump.
Abigail VanderKooi, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian senior: She won the 3,200 in Division 3 as a freshman and junior and in the fall became the eighth runner in MHSAA history to win four cross country titles. She’s seeded first in the 1,600 (5:05.40), second in the 3,200 (11:13.12) and fourth in the 800 (2:24.87) and will run on the top-seeded 3,200 relay.
Tess VanDyk, Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep senior: She swept the throws at last year’s Final and is seeded first in both with a toss of 40-0 in shot put and 125-5 in discus.
Allison Wichert, Vestaburg senior: She seeded third in the 300 hurdles (48.75) and seventh in the 100 hurdles after winning the 300 championship last season.
PHOTOS (Top) Vestaburg's Allison Wichert leaps a hurdle during her Lower Peninsula Division 4 Regional on May 21 at Coleman. (Middle) Alma's Trinity Greer, left, pulls away in the 100 during the Shepherd Invitational on May 6. She'll run the 100, 200 and on the 400 relay at the LP Division 2 Finals. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)
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).]