ZEELAND – Quite possibly the most diminutive athlete at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Track & Field Finals on Saturday, sophomore Kayla Windemuller of Holland Christian twice fell to the track at Zeeland Stadium and twice got back on her feet, kept her composure and finished the 3,200-meter run before anyone else.
About an hour earlier, Windemuller won her first individual MHSAA championship, in the 1,600 run.
Nikole Sargent of Flint Powers Catholic also was a double winner taking first in the shot put and the discus. Sargent won the shot put last season as a junior, but said going into this meet that the discus event was a priority. Sargent failed to place in the discus a year ago, fueling her motivation.
Although Tra’chele Roberts of Lansing Waverly took home only one individual first-place medal, her performances helped her team earn the school’s first MHSAA Finals team championship, as it edged second-place Powers, 42 points to 40. Romulus was third with 31 points, followed by Grand Rapids South Christian with 26 and Zeeland East with 24.
Roberts won the 100 dash (12.55) and ran anchor on the winning 400 and 800 relay teams. The 400 relay set a school record with a time of 48.7.
Warriors coach Rex Wilkes, a Waverly graduate, is in his second season running the program and said he kept Roberts, one of three sophomores on the relay teams, out of the 200 dash in an attempt to save her for the relays.
“We didn’t expect this,” Wilkes said. “I was hoping to come out with some fast times. We got some unexpected points in the shot put. Tra’chele can score points on her own. The others can score in the Regionals and run in the relays.”
The other three athletes on the relay teams were sophomores Jazlynn Wilcox and Maya Garrett, and junior Teaghan Thomas.
“It’s very exciting,” Thomas said. “I’ve been at states three times. We’ve been together since the seventh grade. The same girls ran on the relays, and in the same order.”
Thomas led off, followed by Wilcox, Garrett and Roberts.
Last season Waverly also took first in the 400 relay, but no individual placed among the top eight in the 100 dash.
To Wilkes’ point, another factor in the Warriors; breakthrough took place in the field events. Sophomore Malin Smith was sixth after the preliminaries, then moved up to second with a final put of 42 feet. Smith also took fifth in the discus, an event in which she was seeded seventh.
Windemuller was seeded first and third, respectively, in the 1,600 and 3,200 runs, so it’s not surprising she ran well Saturday. She did place seventh in the 3,200 and eighth in the 1,600 last season, so there was some valuable experience gained there.
No one could predict the events that took place and the circumstances that led to her taking first in both this time.
Windemuller, who said she’s 5-foot-1, won the 1,600 (4:58.9) in rather mundane fashion, at least in comparison to her 3,200 trip. She held off a late charge by junior Christina Sawyer of Tecumseh (5:00.2) in a tight race indeed – and Windemuller had to work for it.
“”It made me super nervous knowing she was close by,” Windemuller said. “I was very tired. I gave it everything I had.”
That was small potatoes compared to her extraordinary effort in the 3,200. With approximately two laps remaining Windemuller, Sawyer and junior Erika Freyhof of Hamilton were bunched together at the front. Suddenly, all three fell.
“I got up as quickly as I could,” Windemuller said. “I was still tired from running the (1,600). … I felt so bad. It was like dominos.”
The second spill took place with just over a lap remaining.
“I was in front,” Windemuller said. “When you go down you have to get yourself back up. It was a great learning experience.
“I’m small, but I’m feisty.”
Her time was 10:59.52.
Courageous athletes dotted the green artificial surface, home to both football teams at Zeeland East and Zeeland West. One competitor, in particular, is a multi-sport athlete who played four years of varsity basketball and was a two-sport athlete during the spring season.
Haley Hoogenraad of Zeeland West is one of the state’s top softball players. She will play for coach Carol Hutchins next year at University of Michigan. Hoogenraad competed in the 3,200 relay Saturday morning, then changed uniforms in a car as she was driven to Holland Christian to play in a Division 2 District Semifinal. West lost that noon game to Hudsonville Unity Christian, 12-4, allowing Hoogenraad to get back in a car to be driven back to Zeeland for the 800 run.
Hoogenraad was not just a qualifier in the event. She was seeded first, and as the race unfolded she moved up from fifth place to second with 200 meters left. Hoogenraad grew tired and placed fourth.
“I slid a few times and dove for a few balls,” Hoogenraad said of her time on the softball diamond. “I was dirty. I’m sad of the outcomes, but I tried. I tried to make my move (in the 800) and I said, oh, I can’t. I’m glad I had the opportunity to support my team.”
That would be teams.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Waverly's Tra’chele Roberts runs a relay anchor leg for the Warriors, who went on to win the LP Division 2 championship. (Middle) Holland Christian's Kayla Windemuller. (Photos by Dave McCauley/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).]