Surprise! St. Johns Celebrates 1st Title

May 30, 2015

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

ZEELAND — Karrigan Smith wasn't going to put up a false front.

Neither was her coach, Neil Feldpausch.

Nobody expected St. Johns to come away with the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 girls track and field championship Saturday at Zeeland Stadium.

And "nobody" included St. Johns athletes and coaches.

"I think I can speak for everyone when I say this is a surprise," said Smith, a senior who had a hand in all but four of her team's points as St. Johns edged Flint Southwestern Academy 36-34.

"A small town like St. Johns winning a state title in track and field? It's an indescribable feeling right now."

Just two years ago, St. Johns wasn't even a factor in its own league, taking fifth place out of six teams. The Redwings won their conference the last two years.

"Definitely we thought (Smith) could score points, but coming in thinking we were going to win the state meet? No, it didn't even cross my mind," Feldpausch said. "These girls have surprised me."

St. Johns had never had a top-10 finish at the finals before Saturday. Smith has been a standout for four years, but got enough assistance that the Redwings were able to score in three of the four relays.

Smith repeated as the 1,600-meter champion in a rout, posting a time of 4:59.08 to win by 9.35 seconds. Smith set the LP Division 2 Final record of 4:51.53 last year when she was locked in a duel with Megan O'Neil of Remus Chippewa Hills.

"It was a little bit weird," Smith said of the one-sided 1,600 final, "but I wasn't going to count any competitors out, because when you come to the state meet a lot of people can do great things and surprise themselves. I was taking this race very seriously. I knew what I had to do. I knew what I could control. That's what I did."

By not being pushed too hard in the 1,600, Smith was fresher for her final two events. She placed third in the 800 in 2:16.94 and was on the second-place 1,600 relay team that clinched the championship. (Southwestern didn't have a team qualify for the final event.)

Smith was also on the second-place 3,200 relay squad that posted a time of 9:31.57.

"I was very excited about how the whole day went," Smith said. "It made all the hard work we put in over the season worth it."

Senior Lyndsay Pung, junior Emily Wohlfert and Belgian exchange student Pauline Carbonnelle were on the fifth-place 800 and second-place 1,600 relay teams. Junior Anna Krumm was also on the 800 relay squad.

Juniors Jen Eaton and Milah Montle and freshman Madison Maloney were on the 3,200 relay team.

"Going in, I scored it out to be Flint Southwestern 39, St. Johns 34," Feldpausch said. "Looking throughout the meet, it kept getting closer. We did some things we needed to and made it happen."

It was the first MHSAA title for St. Johns in a girls sport. The Redwings' other MHSAA crowns are in wrestling (four) and boys track and field (one).

Flint Southwestern led going into the final event on the strength of an outstanding performance by senior Miaisha Blair. Blair won a highly competitive long jump with a leap of 18 feet, 9.25 inches. The top three finishers cleared at least 18-3. Blair was also on Southwestern's second-place 800 and 400 relay teams.

A cool, rainy day — a contrast to the typical scorchers at the finals — probably helped keep Smith fresher for her four events.

It was certainly a welcome break in the weather for the other distance champion, Cedar Springs senior Kenzie Weiler. Weiler was able to challenge the LP Division 2 Final record in the 3,200, but came up short with her time of 10:41.98. Ali Wiersma of Allendale ran 10:40.22 in 2012.

Weiler stayed behind Kelli Nesky of Hudsonville Unity Christian until 500 meters remained.

"It was about 30 degrees warmer last year," Weiler said. "I broke my outdoor (personal record) by six or seven seconds. That made me pretty happy. This is perfect. I couldn't ask for a better day and better competition at the state finals."

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PHOTO: St. Johns' Karrigan Smith runs toward the finish during one of her races Saturday at Zeeland Stadium. (Click to see more from

East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 8, 2022

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."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe 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."

East Kentwood soccerLeon 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).]