KINGSFORD — Sophomore Emily Paupore and senior Clara Johnson provided the Negaunee girls with a potent 1-2 punch in the distance races Saturday, helping them earn their first Upper Peninsula Division 1 track title in eight years with 115 points.
With the win, the Miners also broke the seven-season championship streak for Marquette, which came in second this time with 89½ points. Kingsford was third with 84.
“This was a very exciting day,” said Negaunee coach Vickie Paupore. “At the beginning of the season we knew this was a special group of girls, and our seniors were excellent leaders and role models. They fought real hard. It was exciting to see Emily and Clara go 1-2 those races. It’s so inspiring to see the way they care about each other.”
Emily Paupore and Johnson helped the Miners open with a victory in the 3,200-meter relay in 10 minutes, 4.56 seconds. Paupore then captured the 800 (2:23.7), 1,600 (5:15.23) and set the U.P. meet record in the 3,200 (11:25.52), shaving 86 hundredths of a second off the previous record by Marquette’s Lindsey Rudden (11:26.38) in 2013.
“I’ll take anything if it’s a U.P. record,” said Emily, who also owns the school record in the 3,200 (11:11). “Being my fourth race, I knew it’d be tough.
“The past two years I’ve had so much support from Clara. It’s really sad to see she’s going.
“I always get butterflies before a race, which probably helped me in the 800. You can always build off that energy. I’m going to keep myself busy this summer with weight training and local road races to get ready for cross country. I love cross country. That’s my favorite.”
Johnson, who plans to play basketball at Michigan Tech next winter, was runner-up in the 800 (2:24.44), 1,600 (5:16.7) and 3,200 (12:01), all in personal-best times.
“It was nice having somebody to train with the last two years,” said Johnson, who like Paupore was nearly overcome with emotion after their last high school race together. “There was a lot of pressure being the second seed because I knew there would be a lot of people coming after me. I did what I had to do to get second. I PRd, which is what you hope to do at the Finals, especially with this being my last one. In my junior year, I led Emily and pushed her to get better. This year she led and pushed me to get better.”
Sophomore Chloe Norman, also part of the winning 3,200 relay, added a first in the 300 hurdles (47.78), second in high jump (4-8) and third in long jump (15-2½).
“Last year we set our school record in the 3,200 relay (9:46.91),” said Norman. “This time we just wanted to get a good place and conserve energy for other events.”
Marquette’s Rachel Hunt won long jump (15-2½), edging Houghton junior Anabel Needham by a half-inch. Hunt also helped the winning 800 relay (1:49.2) and was runner-up in the 200 (27.35).
Kingsford junior Olivia Allen took the 100 (13.09), retained her 200 (27.07) and 400 (59.51) titles and helped the Flivvers repeat as 1,600-meter relay champions (4:19).
“I’ve been working pretty hard on my starts, and I think I had one of my best starts in the 100,” said Allen. “It wasn’t perfect, but it gives me something to work on for next year.
“We had a great bunch of seniors who helped us so much. The weather was definitely on our side today. The breeze helped cool us off a little on the back stretch.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Negaunee’s Emily Paupore checks to make sure teammate Clara Johnson will finish second to her in a race Saturday; they came in first and second, respectively, in three events. (Middle) Kingsford’s Olivia Allen breaks across the line first in the 100-meter dash. (Photos by Cara Kamps. Click for more at 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).]