Williams Races to Place with All-Time Best

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

April 18, 2019

Bridgeport girls track coach Rick Popp said he believes his star sprinter Payten Williams has the potential to be a world champion.

The high praise is something Williams appreciates, as she said it shows her coach has faith in her. But does the senior have that same faith in herself?

Williams was as quick to answer that as she is on the track: “Yes.”

“Payten is crazy fast,” Popp said. “She’s been the fastest girl in the state of Michigan the past two years. When you watch her run, her leg speed is insane. We don’t have a boy that can beat her in the 40 meters. The girl is just crazy lightspeed right now.”

While a world championship is a lofty goal, it’s hard to argue with Popp’s current assessment of Williams, the reigning MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 champion in the 100 and 200 meters. During the past two years, she’s lost just two races, and both came at the MHSAA Finals her sophomore year. She placed fourth in both. She wasn’t unbeaten as a freshman, but she still finished first more than she didn’t and placed sixth at the Finals in the 200.

Her personal best in the 200 meters is 24.26 seconds, which she ran in July 2018 at the United States Track and Field Junior Olympics in North Carolina, placing 10th. That time would be an MHSAA Finals record in all but Division 1. Her personal best in the 100 is 12.06, which she ran at the 2018 MHSAA Finals, when she won by nearly half a second – second place came in at 12.55.

“Every state record should be gone,” Popp said, alluding to Williams breaking them. “Every all-time state record should be gone. When she’s dialed in, she’s lightspeed. She flies off her feet better than most anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Williams said she’s always been fast, but it took good coaching to help her reach these heights. That’s something she said she began to receive while in middle school from her AAU coaches, and that has continued into high school with them and Popp.

As things started to click, Williams started thinking big.

“It felt great – it felt that I was going to become something,” Williams said. “I had a lot of people looking up to me, so I knew I had to keep going further. Making it all the way to the Olympics is something that’s big for me.”

She said she’s made a decision on which college she will be attending, but that she isn’t ready to make an announcement. 

Her focus for now is on finishing her high school career strong. That includes breaking the 24-second and 12-second barriers in her respective races, although she was quick to note that the 100 isn’t really her race despite the fact she’s been dominant in it for two years.

“The 200 is my race,” she said. “I just like the race; it’s hard to explain it.”

She said that even after winning the 100 at last year’s Finals, she was more concerned with the 200 she still had to run. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t happy about the double.

“It felt great,” she said. “My mom was like, ‘You’re going to get this. You’re going to become a state champion.’ I was like, ‘No mom, don’t think that.’ But then she was right.”

The times are more important to Williams than winning races. With such lofty goals and recent championship results, focusing on racing the clock could be her best path to reaching them.

“I just focus on getting to the finish line and how I run,” she said. “I don’t think about anything else. I just think about myself and the track.”

Williams has yet to run an outdoor race this season, but she did win a pair of indoor races at Saginaw Valley State in late March, claiming the 60 meters in 7.74 seconds and the 200 in 25.41. 

She said she’s been off to a slower start this season, as she’s had to devote more time to her family, specifically helping care for her grandfather. While she didn’t want to elaborate, she did say that she’s getting back to practicing full time and expects to have another strong season. 

There’s plenty for her to work for, including repeat championships, state records, getting closer to her Olympic dreams, and her family.

“I’m pushing myself by using my strength as my motivation,” she said. “And I’m doing it for my granddad.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at paulcostanzo3@gmail.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bridgeport's Payten Williams, far right, surges through the finish in winning the 200 meters at last year's Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals. (Middle) Williams, middle, leads the 100 as contenders power through the final paces of that sprint. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)

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

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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).]