KENTWOOD – There was no mistaking the marquee event at Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Girls Track and Field Final.
With three of the top girls distance runners in the entire country competing, the 1,600-meter final had the undivided attention of a huge throng at windy, but sunny, East Kentwood High School.
Hannah Meier of Grosse Pointe South ran a Finals record time of 4:39.23, outdueling her identical twin sister, Haley Meier (4:42.43), and Erin Finn of West Bloomfield (4:45.37), in a race that was a three-way dead heat with one lap to go.
“I saw them coming up on me with 400 meters to go, and I knew I had to pick it up even a little more,” said Hannah Meier, who will run next year at Duke University, along with her sister. “They pushed me and I finally broke 4:40. I’ve been wanting to break that for a long time now.”
The winning time was announced as the sixth-fastest 1,600 meters ever run by a high school girl in the United States.
The epic victory in the 1,600 was one of her four firsts on Saturday for Meier, which powered Grosse Pointe South and Coach Steve Zaranek to their third-consecutive team championship. Meier also won the 800 meters and ran legs on South’s winning 3,200-meter and 1,600-meter relay teams.
The Blue Devils won with 76 points, followed by Saline with 55, host East Kentwood (47), Rochester Adams (42) and Macomb Dakota (32).
Saline posted its best-ever Finals finish behind junior Quenee Dale, who won the 100-meter hurdles and also ran a leg on the Hornets’ winning 400-meter relay team.
The final showdown between the Meier twins and Finn, who have dominated Michigan girls track and cross country since bursting onto the scene in the fall of 2009, was certainly the main storyline of Saturday’s Division 1 meet. But while fans were saying goodbye to those three distance legends, they got to know a new sprinting sensation.
Sekayi Bracey, a 15-year-old freshman, almost single-handedly delivered East Kentwood its third-place finish by winning the 100 meters (12.18), 200 meters (24.82) and placing third in the long jump (18 feet, 5.25 inches).
“I was very confident coming in, and I just tried to visualize each race in my head,” said Bracey just moments after winning her final race of the day, the 200 meters, on her home track. “I feel tired right now, but it was worth it.”
Bracey certainly didn’t run away from the field, having to hold off major challenges from second place Dominique Funchess of Detroit Renaissance in the 100 and Anna Jefferson of Oak Park in the 200.
The third-place Falcons also received an individual first place from senior Mariah Davis in the shot put.
Finn continued her dominance of the longer-distance races by putting on a show in her final high school race, the 3,200 meters. Finn, who will run next year at Michigan, won the race by a whopping 34 seconds – setting an all-division Finals record with a time of 10:08.23.
Finn acknowledged afterward that she was hoping to go sub-10 minutes.
“I went out there with the goal of the 10-minute barrier,” said Finn. “But that’s OK. I set really high goals and try to get close to them.”
Cierra Pryor of Jackson broke her own meet record from a year ago, winning the long jump with a leap of 19-0.5, a half-inch better than the year before.
The Meiers closed out the meet and their storied prep careers in fitting style, powering the Blue Devils to victory in the 1,600-meter relay.
“The most important thing for us today was to win another team state championship for South,” said Haley Meier. “I didn’t feel that great today, but I had to give it all I had for my team. This is a great way to go out.”
Earlier in the day, the Meiers opened the running portion of Saturday’s finals by each running a leg on the winning 3,200-meter relay team in 9:01.98. The other members on that winning team were Ersula Farrow and Christina Firl.
That impressive time was still 13 seconds slower than South’s 2012 winning time of 8:48.29, which is a National Federation of State High School Associations record. That team featured the Meier twins, Farrow and Kelsie Schwartz.
Winning the two sprint relays were Saline (400-meter relay) and Detroit Renaissance (800-meter relay).
Other individual champions were Jae’vyn Wortham of Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse (discus), Kerri McMahon of Novi (high jump), Jane McCurry of Plymouth (pole vault), Anna Jefferson of Oak Park (400 meters) and Breanna Luba of Southgate Anderson (300-meter hurdles).
PHOTOS: (Top) Hurdlers leap in stride Saturday at East Kentwood. (Middle) The Grosse Pointe South team poses on the medal stand after clinching the LP Division 1 championship. (Below) West Bloomfield's Erin Finn finished her high school career with an all-Finals record in the 3,200. (Photos by John Brabbs. Click to see more photo coverage from RunMichigan.com.)
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).]