By Matt Schoch
Special for Second Half
ZEELAND – It’s essentially an individual sport, but the importance of teamwork was on display Saturday at the MHSAA Division 2 Girls Track & Field Finals at Zeeland Stadium.
Teammates pushed each other to the end with one-two finishes in the 100- and 1,600-meter races, highlighting a day that had a three-and-a-half-hour delay and then another of 45 minutes – with one more delay of more than two hours for good measure.
In the 100, freshman Chaniya Madison of Bridgeport edged teammate Payten Williams, last year’s champion, at 12.41 seconds.
“I was trying to run against her, keep up to her, push her, go harder – and it made me go harder,” Madison said. “It’s exciting. I don’t really feel like it’s real. It feels fake, like a dream come true.”
Holland Christian kept the tradition alive in the 1,600 after Kayla Windemuller won the last three Finals titles.
This time, it was junior Gillian Fiene running a 4:57.05 to top second-place Michelle Kuipers, together keeping the Maroons on top of the podium, both noting their faith in a post-race interview.
“I knew I was running it with God and with Michelle, and to know that I have those two walking right alongside me is just such a great feeling and the most comforting thing in the world,” said Fiene, who moved to Holland Christian this year from a school in Illinois.
Added Kuipers: “I don’t feel the pressure as much (from the program’s past success), just more of excitement just to keep going to see what we can do as a team. Just to see how God has blessed us this year even more.”
The pair also helped Holland Christian to a title in the 1,600 relay at 3:58.40.
However, in the team competition, Corunna carried the day with 54 points, while Holland Christian was second with 49. Rounding out the top five were Zeeland East (37), East Grand Rapids (33), and Bridgeport (31).
Corunna was carried by a standout day from junior Hannah Hollister, who won individual titles in the 300-meter hurdles (44.12) and 200 meters (25.26). She also anchored a 400-meter relay winner in which Corunna (49.56) edged Frankenmuth by one hundredth of a second, coming from behind for the win.
Hollister also took third in the 110 hurdles, won by Marysville’s Kaia Scheffler (14.36).
Hollister said she ran the full slate of events last week at the Regional to prepare for what turned out to be a long day.
“It was kind of hard to bounce back from running the 200 prelims and then 15 minutes later in the 100 hurdles, so I’m happy with how that went,” Hollister said. "At the beginning, it was a little rough with all the nerves and not being able to run our first race, but then after that, it was almost nice and it gave us a longer break.”
Another multiple champ, Adrian sophomore Marr Day’Anna, won the high jump competition at 5 feet, 4 inches, and the long jump at 18-10.25, a Division 2 Finals record.
“I was going for 19 (feet),” Day’Anna said. “But I’m happy that I could jump this and beat the state record. My last couple jumps in my last couple meets were really good, so once I got to state meet, I was just working my way up to this.”
Day’Anna said her second-place finish in the long jump last season served as motivation throughout this spring.
Rounding out the field events, senior Mohogany Wells of Lansing Sexton won the shot put at 42 feet, 8 inches, Zeeland East senior Taylor Waterway won the discus at 135-2 and senior Tricia Pierce of Ortonville Brandon won the pole vault at 12-6.
On the track, senior Jakarri Alven of Grand Rapids Catholic Central won the 400 meters at 57.55 seconds, her third Finals title in four seasons and after missing last season’s championship meet with an injury.
St. Johns junior Taryn Chapko won the 800 at 2:15.14, and Plainwell junior Makenna Veen won the 3,200 at 10:38.35.
Eighth-seeded East Grand Rapids pulled an upset in the 3,200 relay, winning at 9:15.00 to edge top-seeded Holland Christian, which set the meet record last year. Holland Christian took second this year at 9:21.15 after its third runner was hobbled with an injury down the stretch.
Williamston won the 800 relay at 1:43.59.
PHOTOS: (Top) Corunna's Hannah Hollister clears a hurdle while leading her team to the LP Division 2 championship. (Middle) Holland Christian's Gillian Fiene paces the field on the way to a win. (Photos by Kevin Fowler. Click to see 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).]