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.)
BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City.
As she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore.
“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.
“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.”
Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team.
“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.”
Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.
Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled.
“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind.
“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said.
Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.
“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.
“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.”
Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness.
“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.”
Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season.
“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.”
Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor.
“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.”
The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear.
She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do.
“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.”
Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture.
“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.”
Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)