Greenhills Succeeds in Drive for 5

By Pam Shebest
Special for

October 21, 2012

KALAMAZOO – Coach Eric Gajar knew his Ann Arbor Greenhills team needed just one win on the second day of competition to clinch its fifth consecutive MHSAA Lower Peninsula title, but that was one fact he tried to keep from his players.

“We didn’t tell those guys that, but they’re smart guys, so they’re starting to figure it out,” Gajar said during Saturday’s semifinals that were played inside because of inclement weather.

“We didn’t really give them the full story, but they started counting and knew we only needed a couple points.”

On a team loaded with experience, it was the only freshman, Juan Martin-Dyer, who won the team’s first match of the second day to clinch the championship.

Martin-Dyer, the top seed, defeated fourth seed Jake Johnson of Lansing Catholic, 6-0, 6-2, in the No. 3 singles semifinal before losing to Kalamazoo Christian’s second seed, Brad Plaiser, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the championship match.

“I had no idea, actually. I had no idea at all,” Martin-Dyer said of the clincher. “It feels good. It’s not just me, though. All the guys won (Friday). It’s all about the team. I only won a few points.”

No. 1 singles was the only flight without a Greenhills finalist.

Top-seeded Michael Sienko, of Williamston, was a player on a mission, defeating second seed Chance Conley, of Portland, 6-1, 6-0.

The two faced off in last year’s No. 1 singles final, with Conley coming out the winner. They also play in the same league, the Capital Area Activities Conference White.

“I was really disappointed last year at the result, and I thought I should have won the match,” Sienko said. “But he won it, so I was really working hard to win the final match this year, and I did.

“I think I played well. Maybe I rose to the occasion. I just focused a lot, stuck to my game plan, and it worked.”

Sienko won a MHSAA title at No. 2 singles as a freshman, but “this means a lot more to me.”

Conley said he figured Sienko would be out for revenge.

“He had an urge,” Conley said. “He wanted to get me back. He had something I didn’t have, and he wanted it badly.

“Mikey was on top of his game. My coach said he only made four unforced errors the entire match. There’s nothing you can really do to compete with that.”

Kalamazoo Christian’s Plaiser said losing at No. 3 singles was not an option, since it’s his senior year.

He played at No. 1 singles last year, but he’s in the Army reserve and during the summer was at basic training. He joined the team halfway through the season.

“I didn’t play tennis for 11 weeks, so they put me at No. 3,” he said.

“This is my last tennis match of high school, and I couldn’t lose it. I couldn’t lose it.”

Dropping the first set, “I don’t know if I was nervous,” he said. “I don’t know what it was. I wall-balled like every other ball so bad. After that, I just pulled it together.”

K-Christian coach Bryan Keeley said he knew Plaiser could pull out the win.

“He wasn’t hitting shots that he usually was hitting,” Keeley said. “His opponent had him on his toes, and he started missing a lot of his volleys that he usually would hit.”

Keeley said he talked to his player after the first set, and Plaiser said he knew what he had to do to turn the match around.

“That’s what you see in maturity out of your seniors and expect of your captain,” Keeley said.

Greenhills won the other six flights for 36 points, double the 18 of second place Comstock Park.

“The key was I got almost everybody back,” Gajar said. “We had a big target on our backs.

“I have a very experienced roster. I have a freshman (Martin-Dyer) who went right to No. 3 singles and a guy (Paul Reed) who transferred in last year (from St. Mary Catholic Central) and sat out a year, then went to No. 1 singles. It really allowed me to bulk up the doubles guys. We were deep. This is as good a team as I’ve had.”

Gajar said in spite of clinching the championship with the first semifinals win, the players were still very motivated, as evidenced by their exuberant cheers for their teammates during the last two doubles matches on court.

“There are some guys who have been playing for a while that are looking at trying to get their first individual titles,” he said. “The other thing that’s got them a little bit motivated is they’ve looked back at some of the past teams we’ve had and looked at their point totals and wanted to lay claim to out-distancing them.

“We told them to get through the semis for the team and go to the finals for yourself.”

Comstock Park’s No. 2 doubles team of Wil Douma and Ryan Schall won their semifinals match, 6-1, 6-4, over Ludington’s Sam Nellis and Justin Markham to earn the point needed for their team’s second-place finish.

They lost to Greenhills’ top seeds, Adhi Rajaprabhakaran and Nick Sandhu, 6-3, 6-1, in the final.

“We had no idea,” Douma said of the importance of his point. “We just went out there and played. Freshman year, I broke my neck when I was in eighth grade playing football, so I just walked on to play tennis. (Schall) picked it up his sophomore year.

“When we walked off the court, our two coaches were standing right there. They were like, ‘You guys just clinched it for us.’ We were pumped. No one ever thought we’d be there today.”

Schall said he wasn’t very happy to play inside because “I’ve never played indoor tennis. But once, we started, I started liking it a lot. No wind, no weather. Everyone’s on fair ground.”

Comstock Park coach Pete Luczyk said the program has turned around, making it to the MHSAA Finals for the first time.

“Honestly, four years ago, we had five returning JV players and that’s all we had,” he said. “Over the past four years, it’s been just a culmination of everything and the kids just going nuts.

“One of the best stories of our team are the twins, Dylan and Tyler Fink. They’ve played No. 1 doubles all four years and have amassed probably 70 first doubles wins over those four years. For them to be in the semifinals and lose to Ann Arbor Greenhills, 6-4, 6-3, is simply incredible.”

Talking about comparisons to the pro doubles specialists Mike and Bob Bryan, “We’ve heard that comparison for four years now, so we’ve gotten used to it,” Dylan Fink said.

“When we started as freshmen, a lot of us didn’t have a lot of experience. Now there are (eight) seniors who started as freshmen, and it’s been great to see how we’ve all grown as a team.”

For the twins personally, “For our first time at states, to make it to the semifinals is great,” Tyler Fink said. “We’re really glad our team made it this far. We really couldn’t have done it without every member of our team pitching in for this win."

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Negaunee Caps Near-Perfect Season by Taking Back Top Spot in UPD1

By Jerry DeRoche
Special for

May 31, 2023

KINGSFORD – The Negaunee Miners are no strangers to lifting Upper Peninsula Division 1 tennis title hardware.

Coach Kyle Saari’s program has been a powerhouse over the past 14 years, winning eight championships and finishing runner-up three times. 

Still, the Miners entered the 2023 event having finished second behind Escanaba the last two seasons. But this Negaunee squad was dripping with confidence, having gone through the regular campaign unbeaten and barely losing a set along the way. 

With that in mind, the Miners' championship Wednesday at Kingsford High School was rather expected. But take nothing away from the 12 Negaunee players who shined nearly as brightly as the blazing sun overhead with seven flight championships and one second-place finish to recapture the trophy in emphatic fashion. 

The Miners are presented with the championship trophy Wednesday. The Miners finished the day with 23 points, well in front of 2022 champion Escanaba, which recorded 11 points. Kingsford took third with eight, Marquette placed fourth with six, Westwood wound up fifth with five and Gladstone did not post a win and finished sixth. 

“From day one, they wanted to bring a U.P. title back home,” Saari said of his squad. “So for us to take seven out of eight finals, it’s a great feeling. You have to play your best on the final day, and today they were able to do that. They answered the bell.” 

Frankly, the Miners have done that all season, to a remarkable degree. Negaunee not only beat every opponent they faced along the way, the Miners' players won a staggering 155 of 160 matches they played combined. 

And to cap it all off, Negaunee lost just two of 32 sets on the final day of the season. 

“This year has been kind of unprecedented,” Saari said. “I don’t think you can ever see (155-5) coming. Our 2012 team was 162-7, and this team beat that as far as winning percentage. 

“The unique thing was they were able to answer the challenge every single day. They’re a humble group, they do it the right way and they handle it the right way, too.” 

The Miners swept the four doubles flights. At No. 1 doubles, Jace Turri and James Thomson knocked off Kingsford’s Ben Trevillian and Gabe Lafraniere 6-1, 7-5, while Gavin Jacobson and Gavin Downey defeated Gabe Tossava and Reid Frustaglio of Westwood 6-1, 6-1 at No. 2 doubles.

Escanaba’s Dawson Williams sends a backhand at No. 1 singles.In the No. 3 doubles flight, Philip Nelson and Zack Brundage posted a 7-5, 6-2 win over Nick Chaillier and Vincent Guindon of Escanaba, and at No. 4 doubles, Ethan Harris and Brandon Borlace upended Brett Berglund and Isaac Lebouef of Kingsford 6-3, 6-3. 

The only flight that didn’t end with a Negaunee win was No. 1 singles, where Escanaba senior Dawson Williams defeated Negaunee senior Luke Syrjala in two tough sets, 7-6 (2), 6-4. 

Williams was overwhelmed with emotion after putting his name in the U.P. boys tennis record book. 

“I’m lost for words right now,” Williams said, fighting off tears. “I never thought when I was a freshman walking into tennis, I’d be winning a U.P. title at one singles.” 

Williams said the matchup with Syrjala, their fifth duel of the season, came with the added difficulty of playing a left-hander. 

“It is always tough to deal with a lefty, and he’s a very competitive player,” said Williams, who won four of the five matches with Negaunee’s top singles player along the way.

But in the overall competition, Negaunee’s depth was too much for all the other competitors. 

“We feel that from one singles to four singles, on any day, they could have each other’s (flight) numbers, so all four of them were able to push each other during the course of the year to make us better,” Saari said. “And I think that’s true within our doubles lineup, too.” 

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PHOTOS (Top) Negaunee’s James Thomson returns a volley during a No. 1 doubles match, with partner Jace Turri. (Middle) The Miners are presented with the championship trophy Wednesday. (Below) Escanaba’s Dawson Williams sends a backhand during the championship match at No. 1 singles. (Photos by Dennis Mansfield.)