The many who have attended second-floor meetings at the MHSAA Office in East Lansing over the years have at least walked past and hopefully noticed the artistic spin above on a past championship race.
Few may know it depicts one of, if not the most star-studded sprint rivalry in MHSAA track & field history.
On the left is Ann Arbor Pioneer’s Crystal Braddock, with Flint Central’s Patrice Verdun keeping stride. From 1987-89, they met five times in either 100 or 200-meter championship races at Lower Peninsula Class A Finals.
Verdun began her MHSAA Finals run as a freshman in 1986, tying for first in the 100 with Grand Haven’s Michelle Bishop at 12.05 seconds.
A year later, Braddock would join her in the championship heat of that race, finishing seventh (12.47) as Verdun won in 11.98 seconds. Braddock also finished third in 1987 in the 200 (25.12), while Verdun was on the winning 400 relay.
In 1988, the matchup took its first step toward being forever memorable, as Braddock was first and Verdun second in both the 100 and 200. Braddock tied the LP Class A Finals record in the 100 at 11.70, with Verdun just behind her at 11.76 and the next fastest racer at 12.08. It was Braddock first at 24.45 and Verdun second at 24.71 in the 200, with the next fastest after those two crossing the finish nearly a second later. Braddock also ran on the 400 relay champ as Pioneer as a team won its fourth-straight Finals title.
The pair would meet for the last times at an MHSAA Finals in 1989. Again, it was Braddock first and Verdun second in both the 100 and 200. This time the Pioneer sprinter won the 100 in 11.84 to Verdun’s 11.99, and the 200 in 24.90 to her rival’s 25.54. Braddock this time also ran on the winning 1,600 relay, and Pioneer extended its team title streak to five seasons of an eventual seven consecutive as LP Class A champion.
High school track was just the start for the speedy pair. Braddock went on to run at the University of Texas, earning All-America honors four times and helping set a relay record at the World University Games. Verdun earned All-America five times for Florida State University.
And add this in when considering the collective speed of those 100-meter MHSAA Finals races. The third-place finisher in both 1988 and 1989 was Detroit Cass Tech’s Trinette Johnson, who won long jump at both of those meets and also would go on to Florida State – where she was a six-time All-American, including four times in long jump.
Second Half's weekly Title IX Celebration posts are sponsored by Michigan Army National Guard.
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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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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).]