Re-focused Hanson Ready to Climb Again
By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com
April 6, 2018
By most any standard, Alexandra Hanson had a tremendous junior track season.
The Brown City star didn’t lose a 100, 200 or 400-meter race in a dual or tri meet, and only finished lower than second twice prior to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 championships, where she was all-state in all three events – fifth in the 200 and 400, and eighth in the 100.
That great season was not up to the standards of one very important person, however – Hanson – and not just because she was coming off a sophomore season that saw her win a Division 4 title in the 400 and finish second in the 200.
“I just feel like I should have at least improved a little from my previous year, and I didn’t,” said Hanson, who didn’t match any of her personal records as a junior. “I know that was because I didn’t do anything during the winter. I was just super naive about it. I thought, ‘I won a state championship, I can just do it next year.’ I definitely had the completely wrong mindset. I think I got comfortable and was not pushing myself like I should have.
“I’m trying to take it as a lesson learned. Take it as a positive.”
Hanson’s disappointment has fueled her this offseason, as she looks to finish her high school career strong and transition to Saginaw Valley State University, where she will run collegiately.
While the Green Devils don’t have a meet scheduled until April 10, and practices have been hampered by early-spring weather, the difference in Hanson can already be seen by those who know her best.
“When she won the state, she didn’t run again until we started track practice the next year, and right in the middle of track season, she got a really bad cold and missed two or three meets,” Brown City coach Don Twiss said. “When you’re an elite runner, you have to stay at that training level, you can’t afford to take that amount of time off. I’m excited about her this year, just because her motivation seems to be totally different this year.”
Hanson spent much of her summer going through workouts she had taken from the Saginaw Valley coaching staff and her other college visits. She ran cross country for Brown City in the fall, and in the winter she continued to run, albeit mostly on a treadmill.
“I feel like I’m in better shape than where I was a year ago,” Hanson said. “Every time I’m like, ‘I don’t feel like running today,’ I tell myself, ‘Well, you don’t want to be like last year.’”
Hanson’s success this season won’t be measured in how many times she crosses the finish line first – although if she is successful in meeting her goals, she’ll do that plenty.
She’s eyeing her personal best times – 58.03 seconds in the 400, 26.01 in the 200 and 12.71 in the 100 – meaning she’ll spend most of her season running against the clock. Fortunately for her, this is something she’s grown accustomed to, as many of her races aren’t particularly close throughout the season.
“It’s hard, especially when you’re in meets where you don’t have someone pushing you,” she said. “It’s definitely hard when you’re racing against the clock. I’m not the most personally motivated person, so my dad has to be standing there at around the 300-meter mark, and he has to scream at me. That motivates me. I have to have someone there motivating me.”
She also has her eye on a new race, as at Saginaw Valley the plan is for her to transition to middle distance and add the 800 meters to her repertoire. She ran it once as a junior, and will try it a little more this season as opportunities present themselves.
“I still think (team) points wise, I’m going to have to run the 200,” Hanson said. “But I’ll definitely run (the 800) more than last year. I’ll be able to run it more because my sister (Juliana) is here now, and she’s fast, too, so she’ll be able to take over the 100.”
Hanson is excited about the transition to middle distance, as she said the 400 has been her favorite race since she was in middle school. She’s also self aware, and said she has a better chance to get her 400 and 800 times to a level where she can compete in college, as opposed to her 100 and 200 times.
“Coming from a small town, the shorter distances I did really well in, so that’s what I did,” she said. “I talked to college coaches, and they started explaining what most 400 runners do – they go up.”
Twiss believes the potential is there for Hanson to transition to the 800 and be successful. He also believes the 400 is where she’s at her best, and that could lead to another trip to the top of the MHSAA podium in June.
“She’s like a gazelle when she gets out there and goes,” he said. “She’s such a natural middle sprinter, or like I call them, long sprints. She’s capable of running an upper 56-second (400 meters). If she does that, that will win it.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brown City’s Alexandra Hanson pulls away from a pack of runners during a race last season. (Middle) Hanson sprints down the stretch. (Photos courtesy of the Brown City girls track & field program.)
East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper
By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com
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."
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
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July 14: Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
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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).]