Patience Pays Off for Soaring Orioles

September 28, 2012

Ludington boys tennis coach Cliff Perez had high hopes for the future. But the challenge during the 2010 season was convincing his players to hang on for it.

With eighth sophomores in the lineup, the Orioles learned on the fly and won only two team matches that fall.

“I was giving Knute Rockne speeches after the match every day,” Perez said, referencing the famous Notre Dame football coach. “(Saying) if we hold on to the philosophy, we’ll prevail.”

He was right, and they have – and the best could be yet to come.

Ludington followed up that tough 2010 finish by winning its Regional last season for the first time in roughly a quarter century and then tying for 15th at the MHSAA Division 4 Finals.

The Orioles get a Second Half High 5 this week after sweeping a pair of matches against ranked opponents at the Almont Invitational on Saturday, and then knocking off another in a match that could eventually decide the Coastal Conference championship.

Ludington, ranked No. 8 in Division 4 at the time, downed then No. 2 Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 5-3 and co-No. 10 Almont 6-2 to finish first at the Raiders’ tournament. The Orioles stayed on a roll by beating Division 3 No. 9 Spring Lake 5-3 on Thursday to go to 8-0 overall and remain atop the league standings with one more match and the conference tournament to play.

But those are just the latest wins of an impressive run. After finishing third at a quad at Portland to start the season, Ludington earned a 5-3 win over No. 7 Traverse City St. Francis and tied current No. 2 Armada at St. Francis’ tournament later that month. On Sept. 8, the Orioles finished first (using the least sets lost tie-breaker) at a quad against No. 8 Kalamazoo Christian, No. 9 Grand Rapids South Christian and co-No. 10 Portland. Ludington also won its home tournament for the first time in at least four seasons.

The only ranked Division 4 teams Ludington hasn’t faced yet are No. 1 Ann Arbor Greenhills, No. 3 Lansing Catholic and No. 5 Jackson Lumen Christi.

The tough slate is by design. As Perez sat in on the MHSAA Finals seeding meeting last season, he learned how other top teams frequently face each other, and how doing so was the key to getting their players seeded highly for the postseason. So he re-did his schedule this spring to give his guys that opportunity.

 “We knew this year we’d have to travel all over the state and take on as many Division 4 powerhouse schools as possible,” Perez said. “It’s the only way to compete. You’ve got to find the best schools.”

Nine of 12 starters from last season’s Finals qualifier are back this fall, led by Perez’ son Jake at No. 1 singles. He’s 20-7, followed by senior Spencer Knudsen, who is 25-3 at No. 2.

A couple additional factors helped Perez keep the Orioles moving forward two years ago. He had relationships with them already, in part because they were Jake’s friends and classmates but also, coincidentally, because he had coached most of them to an elementary recreational league basketball championship years before.

He said all of his players have grade-point averages above 3.0 and two are among the top 10 students in their class, making them easy to teach at a school that doesn’t benefit from having players trained at early ages at outside clubs like many cities in the southern part of the Lower Peninsula.

Most of his athletes play multiple sports, but Jake Perez and Knudsen play year-round at Ferris State, about a 90-minute drive away. Perez went there to play at the indoor facility at least twice a week last winter.

And there’s some tradition to bring back as well. Ludington’s program was built by Howard Jensen, a former NFL player for the New York Giants whose sons Luke and Murphy won the French Open doubles championship in 1993. Howard led the tennis team to 10 Regional championships.

Perez took over the program 14 seasons ago, and guided it to a 10-0-1 record in 2002. That also was the last time the Orioles won a league title, something they’ll try to remedy next week. They’ve never won an MHSAA championship, wishful thinking perhaps, but something worth considering given how the team has succeeded against most of the rest of the best already this fall.

“We feel like we’re in the movie ‘Hoosiers,’ the little country kids that go into the big arena and take on these giants,” Perez said. “But we tell the guys it’s still the same court, still the same ball, and we’ve just got to outplay these guys.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Ludington No. 1 singles player Jake Perez competes earlier this season. He's 20-7 this fall. (Middle) The Orioles celebrate this season's Ludington Invitational championship, their first in at least four seasons. (Photos courtesy of the Ludington High School tennis program.)

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.)