Sacred Heart Finishes Championship Climb for 1st Time
By Will Kennedy
Special for Second Half
June 5, 2021
HUDSONVILLE —The Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart girls track & field team was looking forward to a fun hour-and-a-half trek back home after the Irish claimed their first MHSAA Finals championship in their sport Saturday in Hudsonville.
Sacred Heart finished the day with 51 points, beating out Hillsdale Academy by six. Coach Adam Grifka was holding back tears after he realized what his team had just accomplished. He said it was an uphill climb all season, but they got it done at the right time.
“At the beginning of the season, we had a really low turnout. I thought there was no way,” Grifka said. “We just had everyone do so good today. The biggest thing I told them was to show up and compete no matter what.”
They did just that, earning an individual when junior Nicole Olivieri came out on top in the 400 meters with a time of 57.47, a new personal record. And then the Irish just chipped away, claiming points in eight events total.
Olivieri was the catalyst for her team in the sprints. Not only did she earn the individual title, but she ran the anchor leg in the 800 and 1,600 relays. Sacred Heart won both events with times of 1:49.04 and 4:10.74, respectively, both setting school records.
“I started out the season with a 64-second 400, so dropping it to a 57 is just crazy,” Olivieri said. “I never thought I would be running these times; it’s insane to me.”
She wasn’t the only athlete to put together an impressive day. Lilly Bilbey from Alcona earned two individual titles, in the 100 and 200 with times of 12.51 and 26.58, respectively. Tess VanDyk from Kalamazoo Christian also earned two individual titles, sweeping the throwing events.
Saugatuck senior Jillian Johnson had a solid day as well, capturing her first individual title. She finished atop the podium in the long jump and shattered her own school record, breaking the 17-foot barrier for the first time with a leap of 17-00.75, just a quarter of an inch more than the second-place finisher.
“It was crazy,” Johnson said. “When it was over 17 feet, it was just insane. ... Right when (the eventual runner-up) hit the board on her final attempt, she stuttered a little bit, so I knew I was going to take it at that point.”
The Trailblazers also saw an impressive day from junior Aerin Baker. Though she didn’t come away with any event victories, she helped keep her team in contention all day scoring in three events, including a third-place finish in the long jump behind Johnson.
But when all was said and done, the history went to Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. Olivieri said that even though it didn’t seem realistic at some points this season, she couldn’t be more proud of the way her team competed for every single second to come away as the best track team in its division.
“It’s pretty cool to be the first,” Olivieri said. “Everyone had to do their best today and give it all that they can, and they did. Everybody worked so hard. … It’s such a good feeling.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart’s Nicole Olivieri races toward one of her scoring finishes Saturday. (Middle) Saugatuck’s Aerin Baker leaps one of the hurdles during the 100 race. (Below) Sacred Heart celebrates its first track & field championship. (Photos by Will Kennedy.)
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
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).]