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 [email protected] 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.)

Lake Linden-Hubbell, Stephenson Share in UPD3; Jokela Joins Elite Club

By Jason Juno
Special for MHSAA.com

June 4, 2023

KINGSFORD – Lake Linden-Hubbell got to the top with first-place power. Stephenson won only two events. 

But there are multiple ways to win an MHSAA Finals championship in track & field. And the Lakes and Eagles tied for the Upper Peninsula Division 3 girls title Saturday. 

Norway's Taylor Adams wins the 800. Lake Linden-Hubbell got a little assist from two-time reigning champion Ontonagon in the final event, the 1,600 relay. The Lakes led in the standings by eight points, but they didn’t have a 1,600-meter relay team. Stephenson could have won the team title with a win in that event, but Ontonagon’s relay team proved solid again and forced the Eagles to settle for the runner-up spot in the race and the eight points that come with it.

The Lakes last won team Finals titles during a three-year run from 2017-19. For Stephenson, it had been since 1993 when the team competed in Class C. The Eagles were runners-up last year.

Lake Linden-Hubbell sophomore Emily Jokela entered with the fastest Regional times in all four of her events, and she won all four of them Saturday – the 100, 200, 400 and 300 hurdles. She became just the sixth female to win four individual events at an MHSAA Finals.

The only one she didn’t win a title in last year was the 100 dash; she has that now. The only school record she didn’t have going into Saturday was in the 200; she has that now as well. She broke it by one tenth of a second.

“It feels great,” Jokela said. “I was very worried about running today because it was so hot.”

Her 300 hurdles time of 45.63 seconds set a UPD3 Finals record. Ontonagon’s Lori Wardynski had the record before (47.27).

Stephenson's Jada Kuntze crosses the finish line first in the 3,200 relay.Teammate Abi Codere repeated in the 100 hurdles, and their 400 relay team (Codere, Rebecca Lyons, Isabella Tampas and Cleo Milkey) also won.

Stephenson’s wins came in the 3,200 relay (Faith Cappaert, Joelle Beaudo, Kayela Putnam and Jada Kuntze) and the long jump (Sarah Labs).

Ontonagon also won the 800 relay (Lilly McIntyre, Alli Bobula, Kylee Uotila and Makennah Uotila).

“I’m sad we didn’t get a title this year, but the past two back-to-back U.P. titles we had made my entire career,” senior Makennah Uotila said. “I’ve enjoyed it so much. The relays were a big part of our U.P.  titles, so to still have strong relays is very important.”

Newberry’s Kaylen Clark won the 1,600 and 3,200 runs. She was the runner-up at the UPD3 cross country meet in the fall and in both events at the UPD2 track meet last season. Taylor Adams of Norway won the 800.

In the field, Mariska Laurila of Carney-Nadeau was the champion in the discus, Rudyard’s Alicia Cheney won the high jump, Dollar Bay’s Nora Keranen won the pole vault after winning long jump in 2022, and Brimley’s Grace Hill repeated in the shot put.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Lake Linden-Hubbell's Emily Jokela, second from right, wins the 400 on Saturday. (Middle) Norway's Taylor Adams wins the 800. (Below) Stephenson's Jada Kuntze crosses the finish line first in the 3,200 relay. (Photos by Cara Kamps/RunMichigan.com.)