ROCKFORD – Before she even ran a race Saturday, Kaila Jackson had already established herself as one of the best sprinters in MHSAA history.
But in her final meet, she gave everyone at the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Track & Field Finals one final show.
The Detroit Renaissance senior won four Finals titles Saturday, repeating the feat she had accomplished in 2021, and led the Phoenix to their first Division 1 team title.
“The question was asked early in the season if I thought Kaila was one of the all-time great sprinters,” Renaissance co-coach Calvin Johnson said. “She solidified her legacy today. She solidified her legacy. With her going down to Georgia now to be a Bulldog, there’s nothing I can say but they’re getting a great athlete – a great student-athlete. It’s unfortunate they don’t have an MVP trophy, because she should get it, hands down.”
Jackson was responsible for 40 of Renaissance’s 80 points on the day. Three-time reigning champion Oak Park was second with 60. Ann Arbor Huron (55), Holland West Ottawa (47) and Ann Arbor Pioneer (38) rounded out the top five.
It was the first Finals title for Renaissance since 2007, when it finished a run of 10 Division 2/Class B titles over 11 seasons. The Phoenix were runners-up to Oak Park both of the past two seasons.
“It’s well overdue,” Renaissance co-coach Darnell Hall said. “It’s a good honor to finally get that monkey off our back. Especially with a good group of girls, the elite kids we have, this was the last thing they needed to solidify their legacy in the state of Michigan, was that Michigan state title.”
Jackson won the 100 meters and 200 meters and was part of the winning 400 and 800 relay teams. Olivia Jenkins, Madison Sheard and Jayla Graham joined Jackson on the 400 relay, while Jenkins, Chloe Vines and Jayla Dace joined her on the 800 relay.
Jackson’s winning 200-meter time of 23.51 seconds broke the all-Finals record of 23.74 run by Shayla Mahan of Detroit Mumford in 2006.
“It feels amazing to break a state record,” Jackson said. “I knew it was going to come, but I’m happy it came now. I worked very hard for this. I just feel so accomplished.”
She won the 100 in 11.64, and the relays came in at 47.01 and 1:38.09, respectively.
“I really work hard for this,” Jackson said. “Everything paid off, all the hard practices, the crying, smiling, it’s paid off. I’ve worked very hard.”
The Phoenix also got a Finals title from Leeah Burr, who won the 400 in 55.05.
Oak Park had three champions on the day, led by Morgan Roundtree’s record-breaking performance in the 300 hurdles. Roundtree’s time of 42.38 broke the LP Division 1 Finals record of 42.64 set by Wyandotte Roosevelt’s Kyana Evans in 2017. Ann Arbor Huron’s Mya Georgiadis was second in the race at 42.52, also breaking the record.
Nonah Waldron won the 100 hurdles for Oak Park in 13.9 seconds, while Drelin Mapp won the long jump with a distance of 18 feet, 2.25 inches.
Two others joined Jackson in winning multiple individual titles on the day.
Allen Park’s Abigail Russell won the discus and the shot put. Her throw of 144-4 in the discus won by nearly seven feet, while her throw of 41-8.25 in the shot put won by eight inches.
Traverse City Central’s Julia Flynn pulled off the 1,600/800 double, and even came back and placed fifth in the 3,200.
She won the 1,600 in 4:39.75, and the 800 in 2:08. In the 800, she took control of the race about 250 meters in, and never relinquished her lead.
“I wanted to go out in my first lap, not crazy, crazy, crazy fast,” Flynn said. “I let myself ease into the competition a little bit, had girls in front of me. Then, I had the fear of getting boxed in, so then I just peaced out. I was trying to use my competition, I wanted to stay with them a little longer than I did, but I started to get in that inner lane, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to misstep and get DQ’d.”
Dexter’s Sophia Mettes repeated as champion in the pole vault, clearing 13 feet to hold off a tough field.
“Coming into this I was a little nervous, because I knew I had really good competition,” Mettes said. “Natalie Blake (Holland West Ottawa), I’m competing with her next year (at Michigan State), so I’m super excited. She’s been looking so strong. Brooke Bowers (Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central), she’s been looking great, too. I knew I had a lot to look up to, and I was feeling a little tired coming in, but it was a great competition. I just got nervous throughout the whole thing, but my adrenaline kept me going.”
Holland West Ottawa’s Arianne Olson, who was runner-up to Flynn in the 1,600, won the 3,200 by more than 10 seconds, finishing in 10:23.43.
Ann Arbor Pioneer won the 3,200 relay in 8:55.58 with the team of Sylvia Sanok Dufallo, Emily Cooper, Cookie Baugh and Sarah Forsyth.
Ann Arbor Huron won the 1,600 relay in 3:52.81 with the team of Mackenzie Robinson, Jada Wilson, Christabelle Obi and Georgiadis.
Pioneer’s Gabriella Newman won the high jump with a jump of 5-8.
PHOTOS (Top) Detroit Renaissance's Kaila Jackson, front, powers to a win during Saturday's Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Traverse City Central's Julia Flynn turns into the straightaway during one of her races. (Click for more from John Brabbs/Run Michigan.)
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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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).]