SOUTHFIELD – The village of Grass Lake, located in Jackson County, and the country of Nigeria are worlds apart in many ways.
But at Southfield Christian, chance circumstances have brought the two together – and the results have had a positive effect in the classroom and in the sport of track & field.
Todd Crouch ran track at Grass Lake High School and then in college at Spring Arbor before graduating in 2007. Crouch became a substitute teacher at Grass Lake soon after graduation, and he also helped coach the track team.
But securing a full-time teaching position wasn’t easy. Remember the times. The recession of the late 2000s left few unscathed.
“I applied, applied and applied,” Crouch said. “I graduated in 2007, and the recession followed. It was a situation where people who were working were holding onto their jobs, and art teachers weren’t in high demand.
“Then someone, I don’t even know who this person was, slipped me a sticky note. There was a message to contact a person. I had no idea what was going on. I’d never been to Southfield, and here I was contacting the superintendent at Southfield Christian, Sue Hoffenbacher, about a possible interview and Sue told me that she had been waiting for my call. I interviewed on a Friday, and on Monday I had the (teaching position).”
That was 2010. Crouch is now in his eighth season also as the girls and boys track & field coach at Southfield Christian and he teaches art classes at the high school level and at the middle school, which is located on the same campus.
In retrospect, Crouch said it was his destiny to coach and teach at a religious school like Southfield Christian.
“It’s a good story,” he said. “God meant for me to be here.”
It gets better. Southfield Christian won its first MHSAA track title last season, when the girls team finished with 62 points, 10 ahead of second-place Fowler at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals held at Houseman Field in Grand Rapids. The program’s previous best finish was runner-up in 2007.
Chika Amene and Kaelin Ray, both juniors last season, were the stars on that team. Amene placed first in the three sprints and ran the third leg on the winning 1,600-meter relay team. Ray ran the second leg in that race, placed first in the 300 hurdles and third in the 100 hurdles.
Of the six athletes who qualified for last year’s Finals, five were possibilities to return this spring. Two of those five, however, are not competing in track at this time. Crouch said Ray is focusing on club volleyball this spring. Junior Grace Sanders competed in Southfield Christian’s first two track meets but suffered an injury also playing club volleyball – she could return to the track before the end of this season and was part of last year’s 800 relay that finished third at the Finals.
But Crouch remains optimistic his team can contend for another title. The Chargers have 16 on the girls varsity team, and a number of those athletes have stepped up and shown much improvement over last season – including seniors Grace McFerrin and Shelby Goodson, who both ran on the 800 relay at Houseman last spring as well.
Southfield Christian’s chances begin with Amene, the best athlete in Division 4. Her parents, Chinedum and Uchenna, were born in Nigeria, and both competed in sports. Her mother was a track athlete in high school and Uchenna played soccer in college at University of Detroit Mercy. Amene’s brother, Dubem, is a sophomore and also runs track.
Physically, Chika Amene is stronger this season and competing at a higher level. If she can match what she did last season, that’s 40 points at the Finals, assuming she and three teammates can grab a first in a relay.
Amene has been a sprinter since before junior high. Early on she excelled in the 100 and 200. Gradually, the 400 became her best event. It took Amene until late in her freshman season to approach the 400 seriously, and it took an athlete on the boys team to provide that push.
Blake Washington is a junior at University of Michigan, and his best event is the 400. But it wasn’t always his favorite. Like Amene, Washington concentrated on the 100 and 200 early in his high school career.
“It was at the Regionals of his sophomore year,” Crouch said. “We had some injuries, and we told (Washington) he had to fill in. He ran so well in the (1,600) relay that I said to him, ‘You know, we’re going to have you work on that.’”
Washington set the LP Division 4 Finals record in the 400 in 2015 (49.34) that still stands.
“I was a freshman when Blake was a senior,” Amene said. “The 200, in my mind, was my best. Blake ran the 100 and 200, and transitioned to the 400. I didn’t even think about the 400. In one meet, one of my coaches said to run in the (1,600) relay and my time was really good. So I started training in the 400 as a sophomore.
“(Washington) was like a mentor. He gave me advice on my classes, my school work and running. He taught me a lot in the 400. He told me to make sure I got out fast, to get out hard. In college he told me to have my priorities straight, and don’t get distracted.”
Amene’s time when she won the 400 last season was 58.83. Her personal best is a 57.6. She ran 57.96 to finish 17th in March at the New Balance Nationals Indoor held in New York.
“I’m slowly getting back into shape,” she said. “That indoor season takes a lot out of you.”
A goal-setter, Amene said she hopes to run a 55 flat at the MHSAA Finals.
Amene said she’ll likely follow Washington to U-M. Amene’s grade-point average is 3.7, and she intends to major in business or economics with an eye on law school. She said she’s always been a Michigan fan, and the fact that a second cousin attended U-M doesn’t hurt – that cousin being 2012 Ann Arbor Huron grad Cindy Ofili, who won three LP Division 1 individual titles as a high school senior before becoming a Big 10 champion and Olympian representing Great Britain at the 2016 summer games.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Chika Amene, far right, leads the pack during a sprint. (Middle) Chika, with parents Chinedum and Uchenna at last season’s MHSAA Finals. (Photos courtesy of the Amene family.)
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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July 14: Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
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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).]