By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Sarita Dotson is one of those athletes who always is focused full-speed ahead -- and on those rare days when she's not, she puts on that her usual determined face as much for herself as to be an example for her younger teammates.
But there's an impressive depth to how the Battle Creek Lakeview junior explains what has driven her to become one of the state's fastest high school sprinters this spring.
She likes to keep her past races in the past. But for the occasional practice when Dotson needs an extra boost, she will recall last season, when she qualified 14th in failing to make the MHSAA Division 1 Final in the 100 meters and also fell just three spots short of making the semifinals in the 200.
Or she can draw on something closest to her heart, like her relationship with her grandfather, Grover Dotson.
"He really sets the bar high for me, in a lot of things in my life," Sarita said. "He moved here from Tennessee with 30 dollars in his pocket. That makes me think."
Dotson also has set a high bar for herself -- and is taking some speedy steps toward achieving lofty goals in the next month.
Dotson received one of Second Half's High 5s this week after earning the Most Valuable Female Athlete award for the second-straight season at Friday's Eldon Draime/Al Geisler Memorial All-City Meet at Battle Creek Harper Creek. She won the 100 (12.5 seconds), 200 (25.5) and long jump (16 feet, 3.5 inches) and ran on the winning 800 relay as her team also won the meet championship by more than 100 points. She also won those three individual events and was part of a first-place 800 relay the weekend before as Lakeview won its own Bill Dolezal Invitational.
Her times already are surpassing those she ran at last season's MHSAA Finals, when she posted a 12.51 in the 100 and a 25.99 in the 200 prelims. and Dotson hasn't even warmed up in the 100 yet -- she ran an 11.99 to win her Regional earlier in 2011.
Those times have brought her personal high bar into focus. Dotson has her sights set on the Lakeview records set by three-time MHSAA champion Erica Mann, who owns the school's fastest 100 in 11.81 seconds and the fastest 200 in 24.2 and went on to run at Michigan State University.
Ironically, it was Mann who first let Lakeview coach Becky Pryor in on the next talent headed her way after seeing Dotson run at one a club meet.
“(Mann) said, ‘Hey Coach, this girl is going to be pretty good.’ I asked what grade she was going to be in and she said ‘fifth,’” Pryor remembered. “I said, ‘Fifth? Really?’
"Even at that point, you could tell she was an athlete.”
Dotson humbly admitted she's always been fast: "In elementary school, I would race against all the boys, and I would always win," she said. But the winning carried over to her first competitive races in third grade.
She still looks up to Mann, who Dotson calls a "beautiful athlete inside and out." But although their physical traits differ -- Pryor said Mann was taller with long legs, while Dotson has more of a typical sprinter build fueled by strength and power -- the coach sees the same drive in Dotson as what pushed her champion predecessor.
"She's very fast, and she works very hard," Pryor said. "She doesn't slack off in practice, and she's a good leader on our team.
"She wants to be competing against the best."
PHOTO: Lakeview's Sarita Dotson (in purple) just missed qualifying for the championship heat at last season's MHSAA Division 1 Final.
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).]