By Fred Kelly
Special to Second Half
MIDLAND — For Ann Arbor Huron, some of the faces were new. But the end result was the same at Saturday’s MHSAA Division 1 Tennis Final.
The River Rats reached finals in six of eight flights and won three flight championships en route to compiling 33 points and claiming their second straight team championship at the Midland Community Tennis Center.
Birmingham Brother Rice, last year’s runner-up, and Novi tied for second with 27 points apiece. Both the Warriors and Wildcats finished Friday’s opening day of competition with 22 points, only two behind Huron.
“Brother Rice and Novi did a good job getting 22 points yesterday, so we knew they were right on our heels, and we still had a lot of work to do coming into today,” River Rats’ coach Stefan Welch said. “(Our players) came out and executed. I’m just really happy for them.
“... It means a lot, obviously,” Welch added of winning back-to-back titles. “It’s hard to do it once, let alone twice. For the seniors, it’s nice to send them out on top. I’m really pleasantly surprised by how we performed this year. We had eight seniors leave last year’s lineup, so a lot of new faces stepped right in and performed.”
Huron junior Colin Williams said he felt his team had something to prove heading into the tournament.
“At the beginning of the year, we had a big target on our back, being defending champions,” said Williams, who won the No. 3 singles championship Saturday. “And then we played a dual match with Novi, and they beat us 6-2. They were in the spotlight then, but we felt like we didn’t play our best tennis that day, and we felt we were better than them.
“Today, we proved it,” he added. “We came out, we beat them, and we’re state champs now.”
Troy and Northville tied for fourth with 17 points each, while Traverse City Central was sixth with 14 points.
One of the individual highlights of the day was second-seeded Ed Covalschi of Utica Eisenhower upsetting top-seeded Tyler Gardiner of Northville 6-2, 7-5 in a hard-fought No. 1 singles final.
“It was definitely tough. I was a little tired from my semifinal, but it’s great to pull it off,” said Covalschi, who had to rally to beat sixth-seeded Brett Forman of Troy in three sets in the semifinals.
“He’s a great player,” Covalschi added of University of Michigan-bound Gardiner. “It was a great win. ... I picked up my serve a ton, and my returns were pretty good. Staying in long points really helped me; being patient (was the key).”
Covalschi, a senior who is headed to Notre Dame, said capping off an undefeated season with a No. 1 singles title was memorable.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s great to celebrate with my team,” he said. “My family supported me, and our fans supported me. I really appreciate it.”
Northville’s third-seeded freshman Connor Johnston finished his first Finals with a 6-1, 6-2 upset of top-seeded Jack Hamaty of Brother Rice in the No. 2 singles title match after rallying from a one-set deficit to beat second-seeded Kevin Mei of Huron in the semis.
“I was just being really aggressive, and I kept going at it the whole time. I never stopped,” said Johnston, adding of winning the match, “... I was speechless when it happened. I just dropped my racquet and screamed. I didn’t know what to do, honestly.”
Williams, who was seeded second at No. 3 singles, notched a straight-set victory over Brother Rice’s Chase Peery in the semifinals, and then swept Novi’s top-seeded Koushik Kondapi 6-3, 6-3 in the final. It was Williams’s first individual championship after two years of finishing as a runner-up.
“It feels great. ... To finally get the individual title after two years of losing in the finals is great. It’s really special,” said Williams, a runner-up at No. 3 doubles last year and at No. 4 doubles as a freshman.
At No. 4 singles, Novi’s top-seeded Pavan Rao breezed past Troy’s fifth-seeded Tarun Kalyanaraman in the semifinals, then swept Huron’s second-seeded Jon Seyhun 6-2, 6-2 in the final.
At No. 1 doubles, Huron’s third-seeded Akihiro Ota/Aaron Bradkey rallied to beat second-seeded Andrew Cansfield/Connor Johnston of Port Huron Northern in a three-set semifinal, then swept top-seeded Jason Carless/Andrew Ying of Novi in the final. At No. 2 doubles, second-seeded Max Teener/Ryan Stark of Huron beat third-seeded George Hamaty/Connor Parks of Brother Rice in the semifinals, then defeated top-seeded Nishant Kakar/Michael Chang of Novi 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in the final.
At No. 3 doubles, top-seeded Joey Hildebrand/Johnny Cameron of Brother Rice defeated fourth-seeded Max Knoblock/Nick Yergens of Traverse City Central in the semifinals, then rallied to beat second-seeded George Lu/Michael Bondin of Huron 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the final. And at No. 4 doubles, top-seeded David Weatherford/Brendan Dillon of Brother Rice ousted fifth-seeded Trey Pezzetti/Yani Beeker of Traverse City Central in the semifinals, then swept third-seeded Austin Luker/Will Brenner of Huron 6-3, 6-3 in the final.
Ota, a junior at Huron who claimed his first flight championship, said it was satisfying to defend the team title.
“We have a big tradition to hold up, so we just practice hard every day, and we come up big at the right moments,” he said.
Asked if an individual or team title is more rewarding, Ota replied without hesitation, “The team (title), definitely. ... It’s high school tennis. It’s all about the team.”
PHOTO: (Top) Ann Arbor Huron celebrates its MHSAA team championship Saturday at the Midland Community Tennis Center. (Middle) Utica Eisenhower's Ed Covalschi won the individual No. 1 singles championship and finished this fall undefeated. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)