Henry Adds Coaching to K-Zoo Connection

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

October 7, 2020

KALAMAZOO — When he was 5 years old, Daniel Henry lost his father to brain cancer.

At age 14, he lost his mother to breast cancer.

Grieving his losses and living with his 23-year-old sister, Henry found solace in friends and high school tennis.

After skipping fourth grade, Henry was a young sophomore at Kalamazoo Central when his mother died.

“It was very difficult,” said Henry, now 21. “She’s the one who structured my day. It was my mom that planned out my activities because on the Northside (area of Kalamazoo), it’s very easy to get very distracted and do the wrong things.

“She definitely made sure that I followed the right type of people, people who were doing the right kinds of things for me. After that, it was, ‘Now what do I do?’”

Tennis indeed played a prominent role, engaging him at Central, pointing him toward the next step after graduation and bringing him back after college to share what he's learned.

Continuing a legacy

Tennis continues to give Henry a connection with his mother, Gina Rickman, who was a tennis pro at the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo.

Continuing her legacy, he is a first-year coach of Kalamazoo Loy Norrix’s boys tennis team – quite a leap for a guy who played high school tennis at crosstown rival Kalamazoo Central.

“I hope no one from Central sees this,” Henry said, laughing. “I actually really do like it.

“Whatever I thought of Norrix my whole time being at the rival school, it’s kind of nice now that I don’t have to have any ill will toward my rival school. My mom went (to Norrix) as well. It’s just kind of poetic.”

Graduating from Kalamazoo College this year with a degree in computer science, Henry is taking a break from his job as a legal intern at Ven Johnson Law to coach.

Portage Central tennis coach Peter Militzer worked with Rickman and has known Henry most of his life.

“Gina had a heart of gold. She did more for the game of tennis with underprivileged youth than anyone I know,” Militzer said. “She instilled that same sense of giving back to your community in both Daniel and (sister) Brittany.”

Brittany Johnson took charge of Henry when their mother died, since his uncle lived in Chicago and his beloved grandmother, June Cotton, was in a nursing home.

“Looking back, I expected her to take on the role of my mother and was disappointed at times when I feel like she didn’t quite live up to that,” Henry said of his sister.

“But now that I’m nearing 22, I couldn’t imagine having the responsibility of taking care of anyone.”

Without his mother’s guidance, “It was very hard for me to find something to do constructively other than tennis.

”I’m just really happy I didn’t fall into some bad habits. It could have made it much harder to get here, if not impossible.”

Henry started playing tennis at age 7, but when a coach tried to change his grip by taping his hand to the racket, he said he gave it up.

“When I got to high school, I was like, ‘OK. I played this before. I’m not really good at it right now, but I can meet some friends and play a sport in high school,’” Henry said, “because I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the basketball team.”

Militzer said that at K-Central, Daniel was almost a coach to his teammates.

“He had few players on his team who could even rally with him, but it never seemed to get him down,” he said.

“In watching his team interact, you could see how important he was to the group.”

Keeping a Kalamazoo Promise

The Kalamazoo Promise was instrumental in Henry’s college choice.

The Promise is a fund provided by anonymous donors that will pay tuition to any Michigan college for students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools.

“In kindergarten, they pound (the Promise) into our heads,” Henry said. “I didn’t really know what it meant at the time.”

By his sophomore year at Central, he understood and realized he had to keep his grades up if he wanted to attend college.

“I had a 4.0 before my mom passed away,” he said. “For me to just try to hold on and keep my grades, up I  didn’t really need to study very much. But it started to show my senior year when I took AP classes.

“Part of it was I’m going to college because my grandma said so, and (I need to) keep my grades up so I can go to the best college I can go to.”

Henry said then-KPS superintendent Michael Rice – who became Michigan state superintendent of public instruction in 2019 – talked to Kalamazoo College men’s tennis coach Mark Riley about him.

“I’d been ignoring (Riley’s) emails because it was a Division III school,” Henry said. “Then  I learned (Hornets tennis) was top 20 in the nation. I didn’t know much about college athletics.”

He chose Kalamazoo College, but said he was feeling burned out on school.

“Then Coach Riley said ‘No, you’re here to become a student. You’re here to learn.

“‘You’re here to get your degree and move on because tennis will only last four years, but the connections you make and things you learn will last the rest of your life.”

Norrix athletic director Andrew Laboe noted how the tennis team got a boost after football was postponed due to COVID-19 precautions earlier this year. At many schools, football players picked up other fall sports including tennis. “The telling part of that is three out of the four football players have stayed for the remainder of the season,” he said.

“Daniel is a big reason why they stayed. He has made tennis a fun experience for everyone.”

Laboe said Henry’s youth is a plus.

“He relates to the athletes well as he understands them at their level as he is young himself,” Laboe said. “They respect that he has played well at Kalamazoo College and that he is a product of Kalamazoo Public Schools and has been in our community his entire life.”

Riley said Henry is a “good listener, empathetic, caring, respectful and wants his (players) to love the sport like he does.

“He’s a proactive leader and has the ability to lead by example on the court. Daniel will thrive in life and any endeavor that he chooses.”

While Henry has his eye on attending law school in the near future, he is committed to teaching his Norrix players those same values.

“This is so fun, especially being in a team environment,” he said. “Looking at the relationship that I have with Coach Riley, he’s just hilarious and knows exactly what he’s talking about.

“If the player listens, he’s going to start winning. That’s just how it works. That’s how it worked throughout my career. The times I lost was because I wasn’t listening.”

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Loy Norrix boys tennis coach Daniel Henry sends back a volley during a practice this fall. (2) Daniel Henry. (3) Daniel Henry and his mother Gina Rickman. (4) From left: Loy Norrix athletic director Andrew Laboe, Portage Central coach Peter Militzer, Kalamazoo College coach Mark Riley. (Action and top Henry photos by Pam Shebest. Henry and Rickman photo courtesy of Daniel Henry. Riley photo courtesy of Kalamazoo College.)

West Iron Makes Every Point Count Winning Finals Title by Slimmest of Margins

By Jerry DeRoche
Special for MHSAA.com

May 30, 2024

KINGSFORD – After a two-year absence, the West Iron County Wykons returned to the top of Division 2 boys tennis in the Upper Peninsula on Wednesday with their razor-thin victory over host Iron Mountain and 2023 champion Ishpeming at Kingsford High School.

With two flight championships and four runner-up finishes, West Iron County recorded 14 points compared to 13 for Iron Mountain and 12 for Ishpeming.

Junior No. 2 singles player Zander Birmingham and the No. 3 doubles duo of senior Ethan Isaacson and junior Keenan Dobson-Donati led the Wykons to their first team championship since 2021.

Second-year coach Jim Anderson was effusive in his praise for his squad.

“I’m thrilled beyond words,” Anderson said. “They put in a lot of work this season and had a ton of commitment, and that showed on the court today. They played with a ton of heart and a lot of grit, and they dug deep for the win.”

Birmingham rolled to his second U.P. championship after having won the title at No. 4 singles in 2023, losing just two games in his two matches on Wednesday, both to Munising’s Levi Westcomb in the final.

“To move up from (No. 4) singles to (No.2) singles and still have the same success means a lot to me,” Birmingham said. “I’m very, very excited and just proud of myself in general.”

At No. 3 doubles, Issacson and Dobson-Donati earned a bye into the second round, then won by forfeit in the semifinals before fighting off Iron Mountain’s Ben Truong and Carter Kassin 6-4, 7-5 in the final.

“Two of the hardest-working kids on the court,” Anderson said of his No. 3 doubles pairing. “Ethan’s a senior and one of the leaders on the team this year, and Keenan’s been moving up the ranks. They had a goal in mind today, and they achieved it.”

In the top flights, Munising’s Carson Kienitz recorded his third U.P. title – his first in singles – by defeating West Iron County’s Caleb Strom 6-4, 6-1 at No. 1, while Iron Mountain’s brother tandem of Reece and Oskar Kangas knocked off Hunter Smith and Caden Luoma 7-5, 6-2 at No. 1 doubles.

Iron Mountain senior Reece Kangas lines up a forehand shot during the No. 1 doubles championship decider.Kienitz, a two-time U.P champion at No. 1 doubles, scuffled a bit early in his match against Strom but rolled to the victory once he got going.

“Pretty much every match that I’ve played I start out really slow and I lose the first couple of games,” the 6-foot-4 junior said. “But I start to learn my opponent and I get in my groove, and I’m able to climb back up and finish it.”

Kienitz did so Wednesday against Strom, who came into the tournament as the No. 1 seed and had defeated Kienitz in their previous two matches.

“I knew he hits it really hard, and he’s a good player,” Kienitz said of Strom. “But instead of playing his game and hitting the ball back hard and making mistakes, I was just playing my game and hitting to his backhand and pushing the net.”

In the top doubles flight, the Kangas brothers also started slowly in the final but won 13 of the final 18 games to record their first U.P. title in their only attempt.

Reece said he had to convince his 6-foot-6 brother Oskar, an all-U.P. Dream Team selection in basketball, to take up tennis this season.

“I definitely had to talk him into it,” said Reece, who played singles his previous seasons. “He was thinking of doing some other sports and I told him, ‘If you and me play doubles this year, it will be a year to remember, especially for me in my senior year.”

To close out their “year to remember,” the Kangas brothers needed to gain some revenge on Smith and Luoma, who had won the previous matchup in the Mid-Peninsula Conference championship.

“We knew it would be tough, they are a quick team and they retrieve a lot, so it’s hard to score on them,” Oskar said of the Ishpeming pair. “But we had a sense of urgency today. It was our last (match) no matter what, so we wanted to go out with a big win.”

The Mountaineers posted two other flight championships. Freshman Braden Kassin outlasted West Iron County’s Dominick Brunswick 7-6, 7-6 at No. 3 singles, and freshman Malakai Broersma fought back to upend West Iron’s James White 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at No. 4 singles.

Ishpeming won the other two flights. Hayden Hares and Tramon Gauthier knocked off Iron Mountain’s Geno Schinderle and Dylan Lindgren 6-4, 6-4 at No. 2 doubles, while Adam Maki and Ethan Corp topped West Iron’s Jackson Secord and Matthew Swenski 6-3, 6-3 at No. 4 doubles.

PHOTOS (Top) Munising's Carson Kienitz returns a serve during the No. 1 singles championship match at the MHSAA U.P. Division 2 Final on Wednesday in Kingsford. (Middle) Iron Mountain senior Reece Kangas lines up a forehand shot during the No. 1 doubles championship decider. (Photos by Sean Chase.)