Negaunee Posts Near-Flawless Finals Finish to Complete Perfect Season

By John Vrancic
Special for

May 29, 2024

MARQUETTE — The Negaunee boys completed a perfect tennis season here Wednesday, retaining their Upper Peninsula Division 1 tennis title with 22 points.

Negaunee, which finished undefeated over 11 meets, was followed by Marquette with 15 points and Escanaba with six.

“We have four meets which we call the U.P. grand slam, those being the Kingsford and Negaunee Invitational, Mid-Peninsula Conference and U.P. Finals,” Miners’ coach Kyle Saari said. “This is probably the most rewarding among the titles we’ve had because we had to replace seven guys who graduated last year.

"Our No. 2 doubles (Carson Lajimodiere-Blake Holmgren) was down 4-1 to Westwood in the first set (of a semifinal) and were able to come back and win that match, which was instrumental in setting us up for team success.”

This marked the 10th U.P. championship in 13 years for the Miners, who were crowned M-PC champions for the 13th consecutive time.

Senior Gavin Saunders finished 22-0 this season, including Wednesday’s No. 1 singles final in which he outlasted Marquette senior Matt Barsch 5-7, 7-5 (7-4), 6-1.

“I just had to grind it out one point at a time,” Saunders said. “Coach always says it’s 0-0, and the second set went into a tie-breaker. This is the longest and by far the toughest match I had all year. I hadn’t played him before, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

Saunders, who will play basketball at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis., next winter, was the No. 2 singles champ the past two seasons.

“I don’t think there was much difference because the competition was very tough,” he said. “This one is the most special because it’s my senior year.”

Saunders reached the title match by defeating Westwood’s Andrew Niemi (6-0, 6-1), and Barsch topped Kingsford’s Gavin Moore (6-3, 7-5) in the semifinals.

Negaunee’s Mick Kumpula defeated Marquette’s Caden Laurn 6-2, 6-2 in the No. 3 singles final, and Ethan Harris posted a 6-2, 7-5 victory over Westwood’s Jaxson Alderson for the No. 4 crown.

In doubles, Negaunee’s James Thomson and Brady Johnson posted a 6-2, 6-0 triumph over Marquette’s Billy Krebs-Lucas Belkowski at No. 1.

Negaunee sophomores Easton Guenette and Nolan O’Dovero claimed their first title in a 6-1, 2-6, 6-1 conquest of Escanaba junior Adam Prey and sophomore Caden Fulsher in No. 3 doubles.

“We were more consistent getting the ball over the net in the third set,” O’Dovero said. “I think this is a good stepping stone for us. I think this will set us up for success down the road. Going undefeated as a team is definitely good motivation for us. I think we played well overall.”

Guenette said strong net play helped them take the first set.

“They were more aggressive in the second set, then we just got ourselves together and went from there,” he added. “We re-established our net play, and that made quite a difference in the third set.”

Kolten Store and Quinn Walters also provided the Miners with a championship in No. 4 doubles with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Marquette’s Bode Helman and Conner Henry.

Marquette juniors Abe Kentala and Connor Stade blanked Negaunee’s Lajimodiere and Holmgren 6-0, 6-0 for their first championship at No. 2 doubles.

“Having confidence in myself and my partner and sticking with the fundamentals played a big role today,” Stade said. “Our serves and net play were huge. This is a big confidence builder going into next year. This shows we can play with anybody.”

Kentala had similar thoughts on this sunny and seasonably-cool afternoon.

“This feels great,” he said. “A lot of work goes into it, and we played with consistency. Negaunee is always good. Staying upbeat always makes a difference. It helps you keep your head in the game and stay positive.

Marquette’s Chase Thomsen took No. 2 singles, topping Negaunee’s Tyler Lajimodiere 6-4, 6-3.

Click for full results.

(Photo courtesy of the Marquette athletic department.)

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

By Jerry DeRoche
Special for

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.)