Performance: Dow's Varun Shanker

October 20, 2016

Varun Shanker
Midland Dow senior - Tennis

Shanker finished an incredibly successful and in ways unprecedented career Saturday by winning the No. 1 singles championship at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final while leading the Chargers to their first team championship since 2013. Shanker became the first No. 1 singles champion for his school's prestigious program since 1999 and finished 32-1 this season in earning the Michigan National Guard “Performance of the Week.”

This was Shanker’s third season at No. 1 singles; he also won No. 3 singles as a freshman as Dow earned a fifth straight Division 2 team title. The next fall, Shanker became the first sophomore captain in Chargers history, and as a sophomore and junior he made the Division 2 semifinals at the top flight. But this fall was special; Shanker’s only loss was to Birmingham Groves’ Gabe Liss, who Shanker came back to beat two weeks later, and total his season sheet included victories over four of the top-six seeded players in Division 2 and three of the top five at the Division 1 Final including eventual champion Steven Forman of Troy. Shanker had 11 wins over players considered among the top 100 in their age groups in the Midwest, including a 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-6 (8) nail-biter over Kalamazoo Loy Norrix freshman Reed Crocker in Saturday’s championship match. Shanker finished 115-19 over his four varsity seasons.

Shanker followed into the program his brother Vikram, a 2014 graduate who remains tied for second in MHSAA history with 132 career doubles wins and who was named an MHSAA/Farm Bureau Scholar-Athlete Award winner as a senior. Similarly, Varun has a 4.0 grade-point average (4.79 weighted) and is a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. He’s been part of teams that have won three first-place A.H. Nickless Innovation Awards and a total of $135,000 in scholarship and grant money for work in water purification by electrodialysis, piezoelectric devices and microbial fuel cells. He’s contemplating studying biomedical engineering as he considers opportunities for academics and tennis at the next level.

Coach Terry Schwartzkopf said: “As Dow’s only three-year captain in history, Varun demonstrated the character, drive, determination, and dedication needed in order to claim a championship. In terms of community, he has organized beautification projects within Midland and participated providing free tennis clinics in the tri-cities. He has handled grant applications for team income, ordered inventory including uniforms and warm-ups, and handled media relations. As for athletics, we have had talented teams who won championships based on the depth of talent. This year, it was based upon work and improvement. Varun spent the offseason corralling kids, encouraging them to train, and even offering rides when needed. During season, he would work daily with players individually, deconstructing and rebuilding pieces of their game. He ... worked more as an assistant coach than a player. Varun unified, inspired, and took players to task when needed. He had no issue calling out players due to lack of effort and praising those who worked hard. In 17 seasons as a coach, Varun is without a doubt the strongest captain I have ever had. There was never a single time in four years where I questioned his loyalty to the program, his drive to succeed, or his willingness to give all he had to help his team succeed. In fact, I have never wanted a player to win a championship more than him because that was never his focus. From the beginning, his focus was team. He was content that if he played his best he would be satisfied with his outcome, provided the team was successful."

Performance Point: “Coming into the tournament as the one seed, there’s always a little pressure,” Shanker said. “For me, this year was different. This year, I knew, was my chance, that I could do something special. That I could fulfill my dream of always winning the one singles position. I knew I’d have tough opponents to play in the tournament, but I definitely came in with a focused mindset, and obviously it’s tough to not reflect on that last match, those last few points. … I was down two match points, and he literally needed one point to win twice. I want to say my back was against the wall; that’s as close as it’s going to be. To me, it was about believing. I saw my teammates cheering for me; I saw my coach. I saw it was (about) way more than one match, but all the support, and I was able to find it in myself to get a little bit tougher and mentally to be able to pull it out. The support was unbelievable.”

Dow dynasty: “It’s been unbelievable. We had a tradition of excellence here when I came in as a freshman; we had won four consecutive state titles. When I finally joined the team freshman year, I was finally able to understand why it’s like that. Coach instills hard work and preparation, and that was the reason we were able to achieve that. As my career progressed, I was able to learn what some of the things are that are able to make us successful, what some of the things lead to. During my four years, we had a lot of ups and downs – that’s definitely fair to say. My sophomore year, actually, we were supposed to win the state title (Dow finished third). It was a little bit of a letdown to walk away, but that definitely fueled the next few years. We learned how to get back up and dust ourselves off.”

Vikram’s lead: “My brother has had the biggest impact on my life, sports, academics – pretty much every facet of my life, and I do credit him for a lot of this. Growing up, the first reason I picked up a tennis racket was him. I was always big into swimming, but ever since he picked up a racket, I followed suit. He’s a great supporter and has always been a great coach for me.”

Name on the shirt: “High school tennis always has been one of my most favorite parts of the year. Being able to combine the team element to (tennis), it’s hard to describe, but it really enhances it being able to share the process with a group of teammates, both practice and competition. It truly does become a team sport. Representing my school and the community has been a favorite part of high school, rather than just playing as an individual on the USTA circuit. The community in Midland has helped us a lot in becoming great athletes, especially the Midland Tennis Center. Being able to represent playing for my school, it allows me in a certain way to represent the great things they’ve helped us (accomplish).”

Dr. Shanker: “I’m not sure whether I want to go into biotechnology; I definitely always have aspired to be a doctor. I just love that being a doctor, you’re able to help people, but you’re also on the cutting edge of science. That always has been really intriguing to me.”

- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Every week during the 2016-17 school year, Second Half and the Michigan National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.

The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and responds as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our nation's freedom or protect lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster. 

Previous 2016-17 honorees:
Oct. 13: Anne Forsyth, Ann Arbor Pioneer cross country – Read
Oct. 6: Shuaib Aljabaly, Coldwater cross country – Read
Sept. 29: Taylor Seaman, Brighton swimming & diving – Read
Sept. 22: Maggie Farrell, Battle Creek Lakeview cross country – Read
Sept. 15: Franki Strefling, Buchanan volleyball – Read
Sept. 8: Noah Jacobs, Corunna cross country – Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Midland Dow's Varun Shanker follows through on a return during his No. 1 singles championship match Saturday. (Middle) Shanker shakes hands with Loy Norrix's Reed Crocker after securing the title. (Click to see more from

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.” 

Click for full results.

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.)