HUDSONVILLE – Nabbing seven individual event victories Saturday at Hudsonville, the Fowler girls track & field team racked up 87 points to win its fourth Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals championship in dominant fashion.
Pittsford took second place with 55.50 points, followed by Southfield Christian with 37. The title was the Eagles' second in three seasons and came after they finished runner-up to Southfield Christian a year ago.
“It’s a great feeling, said 11-year Fowler coach Jill Feldpausch, a former standout for the Eagles during the 1980s. “We had 30 points coming out of the morning (session) with a first place in high jump, a first place in pole vault and the 3,200-meter relay. That was pretty awesome.”
The 3,200 relay team of Josie Koenigsknecht, Taryn Schafer, Grace Boak and Morgan Goerge turned in a time of 9:51.85 to get things rolling in the right direction for the Eagles. Combined with Ciera Weber’s height of 10 feet, 3 inches in the pole vault, and Alyssa Vandegriff’s top effort and school record of 5-5 in the high jump, Fowler had a good cushion with some of its best events remaining.
The Eagles plowed through the rest of the relays, with Shannon Schmitz, McKenzie Koenigsknecht, Sidney Horak and Kaitlyn Langin winning the 800 in 1:46.28, and McKenzie Koenigsknecht, Langin, Weber and Horak clocked a 50.61 to win the 400. The 1,600 relay crew of McKenzie Koenigsknecht, Josie Koenigsknecht, Boak and Goerge put a bow on the meet with a victory in 4:05.99.
Vandegriff added a win in the 100 hurdles in 15.56 seconds and a fourth-place finish in the 300 hurdles (47.02). She led a trio of Eagles to make the finals in the 100 hurdles. Ciera Weber secured fourth in 16.41 and Sadie Weber was sixth in 16.76. Goerge also scored with a fifth-place run in the 800 (2:24.83).
“Our goal was to win all four relays, and I don’t think that’s been done at Fowler before,” Feldpausch said. “In the 100 hurdles, for three of them to make the finals? They are constantly being challenged, and it’s something to be proud of.”
“Everyone on the team has worked so hard to win a state championship,” Vandegriff added. “We all pushed each other at practices and worked our tails off.”
A couple of future University of Michigan runners capped their prep careers in style Saturday as Concord distance dynamo Samantha Saenz pulled off a hat trick and sprinting star Chika Amene nearly did the same, settling for two victories and a runner-up effort by the closest of margins.
Closing out a phenomenal four years, Saenz, who boasts three all-state performances in cross country, including a Division 4 title this past fall, entered Saturday’s meet as the two-time reigning champion in the 1,600 and a 2017 all-state performer in the 800 and the 3,200. She swept all three events this time around.
The first Saturday in June continues to be bittersweet for Saenz. It was just two years ago that her older sister, Saren, passed away due to complications from a combination of physical and mental disabilities the evening of Samantha’s first 1,600 title.
“I just wanted to go out there and do it one last time for my family, for my friends and for my sister,” Saenz said. “I just run for her. It’s a great feeling.”
Saenz took a conservative approach in the 1,600 (5:00.46) in an effort to leave some in the tank for her other two events. It paid off as she ran a personal-record time of 2:16.31 in the 800. She finished the 3,200 in 11:15.51.
“It never loses its excitement,” she said. “Every time I cross the finish line, it’s so meaningful to me because my sister couldn’t walk or talk. Just the fact that I get to have that gift, it’s just a good feeling.”
For Amene, winning championships has become standard operating procedure, but she certainly hasn’t taken them for granted. She captured victories in all three sprints and was part of Southfield Christian’s winning 1,600-meter relay last June and followed that up with wins in the 100 (12.44) and the 200 (25.33) in her final prep appearance Saturday.
As proud of those wins as she is, the second-place effort to Beal City freshman Angela Kotecki (57.53) in a photo finish at the line in the 400 stung.
“I didn’t get out to a great start in the 100, but I was able to run the girl down,” she said. “The 400 really didn’t go as planned. But the most exciting part was that I was able to PR in two events (100 finals and 200 prelims) and then have a season best in one. The loss in the 400 was painful, but my time was really good.”
So were the performances of several others who came away from Hudsonville with championships. Reading’s Baleigh Irelan was the top performer of the day in the 300 hurdles (45.85), Litchfield’s Allie Vanous notched victories in both the discus (132-10) and shot put (40-4) and Hillsdale Academy’s Katie Vanhavel claimed a title in the long jump (17-3¾).
PHOTOS: (Top) Fowler’s Alyssa Vandegriff clears a hurdle during her team’s championship run Saturday. (Middle) Concord’s Samantha Saenz sprints the straightaway during one of her three victories. (Click for more 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."
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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).]