VanderKooi & Friends Deliver Western Michigan Christian's 1st Track Title

By Drew Ellis
Special for Second Half

June 4, 2022

HUDSONVILLE – Abby VanderKooi just needed a little help from her friends.

The Muskegon Western Michigan Christian senior distance runner convinced her friends, volleyball standouts Kyla and Maddie Wiersema, to join the track team in their senior year to give WMC an added boost at the end of the season.

At Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals, Kyla scored in three events, while Maddie scored in two. That, combined with VanderKooi scoring in four of her own, gave the Warriors the lift they needed to win their first track & field Finals title, posting 52 points to finish just ahead of 2021 champ Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, which scored 48.

“They’ve been friends since they were little kids, so they decided to come out this year,” WMC coach Greg Gould said of the Wiersema twins and VanderKooi. “We knew they were super talented and just added a lot to this team. To see them perform so well (Saturday) and help this small team of athletes win a state title is pretty incredible.”

VanderKooi herself had a big day, setting an LPD4 Finals record in the 3,200-meter run with a time of 10:49.25. It was her third time winning a Finals title in the event to go with four cross country state titles as well.

She also finished second in the 1,600, fourth in the 800, and was part of the 3,200 relay team that finished second.

“Today wasn’t about me, it was about what I could do for my team,” VanderKooi said. “I’m really happy with my performances, but I’m most excited about what we’ve been able to do as a team.”

The Irish had a big performance from senior Nicole Olivieri, who won the 200 in a time of 26.37, then set an LPD4 Finals record in the 400 with a time of 56.01. She was also the anchor leg of the winning 800 relay team (1:49.21) and the runner-up 1,600 relay squad.

“I was pretty tired after that 400, but I knew my team was depending on me for points in the 200, so that gave me a little more push,” Olivieri said. “(The 400 record) has been my goal since missing it by 0.18 seconds last year. That .01 was tough, but I can’t be mad. It’s an amazing accomplishment for me.”

Frankfort trackOlivieri’s teammate, Anna Plum, came away with the championship in the 300 hurdles with a personal-record time of 47.03.

Frankfort finished third on the day with 39 points, thanks largely to senior Tara Townsend.

Townsend collected her third pole vault state title with a leap of 11-6. She attempted to set an LPD4 Finals record of 12-1, but just couldn’t quite get over the bar.

“It was a little disappointing because I went 12 last year and I wanted to go higher, but I can’t really be too disappointed,” Townsend said of her vault performance. “I just took a deep breath on the last one and gave all I had.”

Townsend followed up her pole vault title by winning the 100 dash championship in a time of 12.79. She also was the anchor leg of the winning 400-meter relay team (51.87), while placing third in the 200 dash. Not bad while dealing with a hamstring injury in the process.

Buckley sophomore Aiden Harrand had an impressive day, as she took home titles in the 800 and 1,600 runs. In the 800, Harrand had a PR of 2:19.25, while she finished the 1,600 in a PR of 4:56.38.

Fowler won the 1,600-meter relay with a time of 4:10.11 to close out the meet. The Eagles came in fourth as a team with 35 points. Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest won the 3,200 relay with a time of 9:59.16.

Brynn Mericle won the 100 hurdles with a PR time of 15.93 to spark East Jackson to a fifth-place finish as a team.

In the field events, Morrice senior Emma Valentine repeated as the LPD4 high jump champion with a leap of 5-6.

“It was very nerve-wracking, because I wanted to repeat but I wasn’t sure how the day would pan out,” Valentine said. “I was very excited to be able to clear (5-6) again. It was great to be able to show up and perform well.”

Hillsdale Academy’s Anna Roberts took home the long jump title with a jump of 16-5.5. Gobles’ Elli Stender won the discus with a PR toss of 122-9. Kalamazoo Christian’s Tess VanDyk repeated as champion of the shot put with a throw of 41-7.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Muskegon Western Michigan Christian's Abby VanderKooi runs her leg of the 3,200 relay Saturday at Baldwin Middle School. (Middle) Frankfort's Tara Townsend, middle, wins the 100. (Click for more from Dave McCauley/Run Michigan.)


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).]