Sargent Takes Charge as Elite Thrower

April 22, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

FLINT — If Nikole Sargent decided early on to specialize in her favorite sport, she never would've discovered her best sport.

Track and field, actually, ranked no higher than third on her list when she began competing in high school. She made the varsity volleyball team as a freshman at Linden in the fall of 2012, then made the Eagles' varsity basketball team in the winter.

"Basketball was the sport I thought I was going to go to in college," Sargent said. "Volleyball took over in my mind my sophomore year. I was going to play really high-level volleyball, so I gave up basketball and focused on track and volleyball."

Oh, yeah, track.

It's a good thing she kept that option open, because that's where she's really made a name for herself in high school and where she'll compete as a thrower for Michigan State University.

"My sophomore year, I got letters from schools about track," Sargent said. "I'm like, 'Oh, I never thought about this.'"

Sargent hit the radar of college track and field recruiters when she placed third as a freshman in the shot put in the 2013 MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 meet for Linden with a toss of 41 feet, 1.5 inches. After transferring the following school year to her parents' alma mater, Flint Powers Catholic, she took second in the shot put (41-3) and 10th in the discus (109-4) in Division 3.

When Powers moved up to Division 2 her junior year, Sargent was unaffected by the increase in competition. She won the MHSAA championship in the shot put, throwing 45-4.75.

It was a performance that mirrored that of her father, Mike, who won the shot put and discus for Powers in 1984 after the Chargers moved up from Class B to Class A. He was third in both events in Class B as a junior in 1983.

Nikole was already involved in three sports by her middle school years when her father, a tight end on MSU's 1988 Rose Bowl team, introduced her to shot put.

At first, she was underwhelmed.

"When I first threw the shot put in seventh grade," Sargent said, "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is not for me. This is hard. I am not going to be good at this.' Then I went to my first meet and I ended up beating everyone by like 10 or 15 feet. I was like, 'OK, I guess I'll give it a shot.' That's when he really started working with me and said, 'You could be good at this.'

"It was something completely different than anything I'd ever done. I was a basketball player, a volleyball player, a soccer player. I was not a thrower, in my mind. Not until eighth grade did I think of myself as a thrower."

Sargent threw the six-pound shot 43-6 as an eighth grader. Her outdoor season bests throwing the 8.8-pound shot in high school have been 43-7.5 as a freshman, 42-6.5 as a sophomore, 45-6.25 as a junior and a school-record 47-0.75 as a senior.

In the Michigan Indoor Track Series state meet on Feb. 27, Sargent won the championship with a throw of 45-9. She topped a field that included defending MHSAA LP Division 1 champion Emily Meier of Canton and two other top-five finishers from last year's Division 1 meet.

While she already has an MHSAA shot put title on her resume, Sargent is determined to atone for a subpar performance in the discus last season. She was the second seed in the discus last spring with a toss of 132-11, but wound up 12th at 111-3 at the MHSAA meet.

"I threw really bad, so I'm kind of out for redemption this year," Sargent said. "I know I can throw a lot better, and I'm hoping to take a state title in that, as well. My practices have already been 10 times better than last year. Disc is all form. Pretty much throughout this last summer and the beginning of this season, I've just been working on form. I work on my form for 10, 20, even 30 minutes before I start throwing.

"I came in seeded second. When you end up taking (12th), it's not really something good, but you learn from every experience. I try to be a stronger person. I don't let pride get in the way or anything. It just makes you want to work harder."

Sargent has developed consistency in the discus early this season, clearing 130 feet in all three of her competitions. She did so only twice in 2015, both throws coming late in the season.

Sargent not only has the benefit of her father's throwing knowledge, but she's coached by Mike Stuart, one of the most successful throwing coaches in Michigan. Flint Carman-Ainsworth had the premier throwing program in the state when Stuart was an assistant coach with the Cavaliers.

"It helps a lot," Sargent said. "Obviously, he's had so much success. Working with him has brought this whole new world of throwing to me that I never imagined. He has a way of putting things that makes so much sense to me."

Stuart began working with Sargent before her junior year.

"She needed a lot of help," Stuart said. "I had to reteach her the discus the first summer that I met her. Her shot put technique was basically good; we just had to work on using the circle better. She has a 45-foot standing throw, which is off the charts. I've never even heard of that in high school. It's from having basic good throwing technique, and she's awfully strong for a girl; she bench-presses 210 pounds."

If Sargent needs advice on how to deal with the ups and downs of an athletic career, she doesn't have to look beyond the family dinner table.

In addition to her father's athletic background, twin brother Noah was the starting quarterback on Powers' MHSAA Division 5 runner-up football team in the fall and older sister Jordan is a defender on Oakland University's soccer team.

"My mom (Tracy) played sports, as well," Sargent said. "We grew up working out together. We were always watching a football game. Sports has always been a big part of my life. My twin brother and I have always competed against each other, even though we do different sports. We've always been that rival with each other. 'I'll shoot baskets with you if you'll toss the volleyball.'"

An accomplished athlete in her own right, Nikole relished taking on the role of cheerleader when her brother led Powers to Ford Field.

"I was the leader of our student section," she said. "I started all the cheers. I was always in the front row. That was an amazing memory."

Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at billkhan35@gmail.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Flint Powers' Nikole Sargent unloads the shot during a meet last season. (Middle) Sargent tosses the discus during the Earlybird meet at Flint Kearsley on April 13. (Photos courtesy of the Sargent family and Flint Powers athletic department.)

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."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe 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."

East Kentwood soccerLeon 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).]