A year away because of COVID-19 makes anticipating champions at Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Girls Track & Field Finals even more difficult than usual.
Of course, frequent favorite Oak Park is back in Division 1 and is almost assured of being in that title mix with a few more speedy teams including Detroit Renaissance. But as for the other three divisions? There are plenty of possibilities, including teams that haven’t been in the conversation much before.
Events begin at 10 a.m. (EDT) and tickets to attend can be purchased online only at . The meets also will be broadcast on MHSAA.tv and viewable with subscription. Click to watch each division: LPD1 | LPD2 | LPD3 | LPD4.
Below is a glance at team contenders and individuals to watch in all four divisions.
Division 1 at East Kentwood
Top Regional scores: Northville 164, Macomb Dakota 144, Detroit Cass Tech 143.
Team forecast: Oak Park has won the last two Division 1 championships and four of the last five (finishing runner-up in 2017). The Knights might be the team to chase again with top seeds in four events and two more lower-seeded relay contenders. Detroit Renaissance was runner-up in 2019 and should be in the mix with high finishes in the sprints and sprint relays, while Ann Arbor Huron has contenders all over the running events plus the top-seeded long jumper.
Fatouma Conde, Ann Arbor Huron: If Huron is to make a team title run, Conde most certainly will play one of the largest parts. She’s seeded second in the 100 and 200 and is expected to run on the top-seeded 400 relay (47.46) and second-seeded 1,600 relay.
Audrey DaDamio, Birmingham Seaholm: The Division 1 cross country champion in the fall will be looking to add a few more titles in her final meet for the Maples. She’s seeded first in the 1,600 (4:50.01) – which her sister Rachel won in 2015 – and also in the 3,200 (10:40.72), and she’s the third seed in the 800.
Kaila Jackson, Detroit Renaissance: Jackson made an immediate impact in her Finals debut in 2019 with championships in the 200 and as part of the 800 relay to go with a runner-up finish in the 100. Now a junior, her top-seeded 11.58 in the 100 lines her up to chase the all-Finals record of 11.54, and her top-seeded 23.71 in the 200 is faster than the all-Finals record of 23.74. She’ll also run on the top-seeded 800 relay (1:37.91) and second-seeded 400 relay.
Opal Jackson, Macomb L’Anse Creuse North: The senior thrower is the favorite in both the shot put (47-3) and discus (145-2) with her Regional tosses in those events two and four feet, respectively, farther than the next best in these fields.
Jada Roundtree, Oak Park: One of many Oak Park standouts, Roundtree is the top seed in the 400 (55.47) and will run on the top-seeded 1,600 relay (3:50.9) and second-seeded 800 relay.
Nonah Waldron, Oak Park: Part of the next generation of Oak Park stars, Waldron is a sophomore and seeded first in the 100 hurdles (13.77) and 300 (43.31) at her first Finals. She also will long jump and run on the 800 relay.
Division 2 at Zeeland
Top Regional scores: Dearborn Divine Child 214, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood 134, Chelsea 134.
Team forecast: Six teams have won this meet over the last seven seasons, with Corunna the most recent champ in 2019. A number of teams appear contenders this time, with Divine Child, Petoskey and Parma Western among the intriguing possibilities. Divine Child is running for its first title since 2013 backed by strong relays and qualifiers in a variety of events. Petoskey’s only top-two Finals finish was a Class B runner-up in 1992, but the Northmen could compete for championships in four distance events. Western also has never won a team title but has top-four seeds in six events.
Hannah Antkoviak, Allegan: She finished second in the 300 and fourth in the 100 hurdles in 2019 as a sophomore, and she enters this weekend as the top seed in the 300 (45.16) and long jump (17-2¾) and third in the 100 hurdles.
Madelyn Frens, Grand Rapids Christian: The 3,200 runner-up as a freshman two years ago is the second seed in the 1,600 and third in the 3,200 and was third in Division 2 cross country in the fall.
Chaniya Madison, Bridgeport: The lone returning champion from the 2019 Division 2 meet won the 100 that spring as a freshman and will run that race, the 200 and on the 400 relay this time.
Reese Powers, Marysville: The Vikings standout junior should make a run at two individual championships as the top seed in the 800 (2:18.03) by nearly two seconds and a close second seed in the 400.
Emma Squires, Petoskey: The Division 2 cross country champion this past fall, she posted top-eight finishes in the 1,600 and 3,200 as a sophomore in 2019 and is seeded first in the 1,600 (5:08.52) and second in the 3,200 this time. She’ll also run the 800 and as part of the top-seeded 3,200 relay (9:27.52).
Division 3 at Jenison
Top Regional scores: Clare 180½, Pewamo-Westphalia 161½, Adrian Madison 143, Montague 143.
Team forecast: Pewamo-Westphalia is the reigning champion and has won three of the last seven championships. The Pirates have six top-five seeds this weekend and should be in the mix again especially if the meet is low-scoring. Grass Lake is seeded third or better in all five events in which it will participate, and Adrian Madison and Byron also are intriguing at a meet where individual champions can drive team scoring.
Carly Anschuetz, Adrian Madison: She’s the top seed in the 100 hurdles (15.81) and 300 (47.29) and also will high jump and run on the 800 relay. She was third in the 300 as a sophomore in 2019.
Lexus Bargesser, Grass Lake: The champion in the 100 and 200 two years ago as a freshman is the top seed in the 200 (25.32) and 400 (55.15) and second seed in the 100 this time, and she’ll also run on the top-seeded 1,600 relay (4:08.97).
Allison Chmielewski, Roscommon: The junior distance standout has the top seed in the 1,600 (4:53.68) by nearly 18 seconds with a time only 4.28 seconds off the meet record. She was fourth in both the 1,600 and 3,200 as a freshman and also will run the 800 and on the 3,200 relay this time.
Renae Kutcha, Jackson Lumen Christi: She may be the second seed in the 400, but Kutcha is looking to add her third championship in that race after earning the titles as a freshman and sophomore. She also will run the 200 and as part of the 1,600 relay.
Sarah Marvin, Byron: The champion in both the discus and shot put as a sophomore in 2019 is seeded first in both this weekend at 151-0 and 49-10¾, respectively. That shot put is more than three feet longer than the LPD3 Finals record.
Abby VanderKooi, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian: A three-time Cross Country Finals champion, VanderKooi also claimed the Division 3 3,200 title as a freshman two years ago and is seeded first (10:49.44) in that race this weekend by more than 21 seconds.
Division 4 at Hudsonville Baldwin Middle School
Top Regional scores: Hillsdale Academy 179, Lutheran Westland 149, Allen Park Cabrini 136.
Team forecast: Before COVID, Fowler had won two straight Division 4 titles and three of the last four, with Pittsford the runner-up in both 2018 and 2019. Hillsdale Academy was sixth in 2019 but could make the move for its first team championship with qualifiers all over the lineup and strong relays. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart also should be a contender for its first championship with lots of points possibilities in the running events.
Olivia Findlay, Marlette: The freshman enters her first Finals with the top seed in the long jump (16-1½) and tied for the top seed in the high jump (5-3). She also will run on the 800 relay.
Ashley Plum, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart: The Irish senior sprinter is the top seed in the 200 (26.58) and also will run the 100 and 400 and on the top-seeded 1,600 relay (4:14.35). She was part of the winning 1,600 relay in 2019.
Makenna Scott, Maple City Glen Lake: The standout junior is the top seed in the 3,200 (12:03.63) by more than 16 seconds and the second seed in the 1,600 after also running both as a freshman in 2019. She’ll also run on the 1,600 relay.
Tara Townsend, Frankfort: She won the pole vault championship two years ago as a freshman and is the top seed by a foot at 11-0. She’ll also run the 100, 200 and on the 400 relay. She was seventh in the 100 in 2019.
Tess VanDyk, Kalamazoo Christian: The junior thrower is a favorite in both events, entering the weekend with the top-seeded shot put (36-7) and second-seeded discus toss.
PHOTO: St. Charles’ Lindsey Pumford anchors her 400 relay to a Division 3 Regional championship two weeks ago at Shepherd. (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).]