Senior-Led Hackett Loaded for 2020 Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

September 9, 2020

KALAMAZOO — Game days, Nicholas DeForest can be found sitting alone on the bleachers, autographed cast on his wrist, while his teammates compete on the tennis courts.

Slated for the No. 1 singles spot, the senior from Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep still has a couple weeks until he will join the lineup.

“It’s really frustrating, but it’s still awesome to watch the team perform and excel,” said DeForest, whose dad Marc DeForest is the team’s assistant coach.

Rather than plopping someone else in the top spot, Hackett head coach Aaron Conroy defaults the point.

So far, that has not hurt the reigning Lower Peninsula Division 4 co-champ.

After defeating Kalamazoo Christian, 7-1, last Wednesday, the Irish are 3-0-1.

The tie came against perennial power Traverse City St. Francis.

In this season’s first Michigan High School Tennis Coaches Association rankings, two weeks ago, Hackett was the top-ranked team in Division 4. Hackett remains No. 1 this week, with St. Francis No. 2.

That bodes well for the senior-laden Irish, who lost just three players from last year’s team that shared the title with Allegan.

Eight of this fall’s 12 starters are seniors.

“The unique thing about this is that for most of the guys, their primary sport is not tennis,” Conroy said. 

“It’s really just 10 or 12 guys who decided to come play high school tennis a few years ago. They stuck at it and worked hard.”

One of the seniors, Sam Magnell, is back after opting to play football with his brother Gus, then a senior, last year.

Sam’s biggest regret: Missing out on last year’s Finals championship.

Doubles specialists

Magnell, playing No. 2 doubles with senior Anthony Toweson, said communication is a huge part of a good doubles team.

“If you can execute well at the net and communicate well with your partner, you will do really well on a doubles court,” added Magnell, who also played lacrosse and basketball.

Two seniors who do that well are Ben Bridenstine and Rhodes Conroy at No. 1 doubles.

Bridenstine lost in the LPD4 semifinals at No. 3 singles last year.

Aaron Conroy explained the move to doubles: “We lost two quality seniors last year in Blake DeForest, half of our 1 doubles team, and Connor Cavanaugh, half of our No. 2 doubles team.

“We had to shift somebody. Ben and Rhodes played doubles two years ago and had some success at 3 doubles early on.”

Both standing 6-foot-2, the lanky seniors take a strong net game into each match.

“We love coming to the net,” said Rhodes Conroy, who also plays lacrosse and basketball. “It’s tough to hit the ball over us, and it’s tough to hit the ball through us.

“Tennis is much more quick feet and a lot more working your legs out (than the other two sports). Tennis really helps me with quick hands for lacrosse and for basketball.”

Bridenstine would love nothing more than to get back to the state tournament. He already has two championship medals; he also was part of Hackett’s 2019 LPD4 championship golf team.

The senior said it is nice to have a partner on the court this year and the pair are having fun, especially with a 4-0 record so far.

“Singles is more running around, more groundstrokes, and switching to doubles is more action-packed at the net, which I like: volleying the ball, hitting overheads,” Bridenstine said.

As defending LPD4 champs, “We know everybody will be out gunning for us, trying to beat us,” Bridenstine added. “But I don’t think we feel a lot of pressure because we’re returning nine of the same guys, so we know what to do.”

Ford a ‘fireball’

Although the Irish had no individual champions at last year’s Finals, they made championship matches in three flights, including at No. 2 singles with current senior Jack Ford.

“Jack Ford’s a fireball,” the coach said. “That’s the best word I can use. He’s a fiery guy who plays with a lot of energy, and he’s very athletic on the court

“He’s actually a better athlete than he is a tennis player. He outworks guys.”

Ford said he was surprised the team did so well last season, and he learned from the experience.

“It taught me that anything is possible because we had no idea we were going to even make it to the (state) tournament last year,” he said. “We weren’t in the top 10 discussion, but come the state tournament our team just switched gears and all of us played some of our best tennis.”

Although he played USTA tournaments when he was younger, Ford opted for football his freshman year at Otsego High School before transferring to Hackett.

“Tennis is my favorite, hands down,” he said. “After the break playing football and coming back to tennis, I started enjoying it a lot more.”

Rounding out the singles flights this season are a pair of sophomores, Tommy Kling at No. 3 and Niklas Johansson at No. 4.

“Tommy is our one guy that tennis is his primary sport,” Conroy said. “He works hard at it.

“He made it to the state semi last year as a freshman, which is a very nice result. He moved up to 3 this year and will see some stiff competition.”

Johansson jumped from No. 4 doubles to singles this year.

“The way he plays the game, he’s more conducive to be a singles player,” Conroy said of the move. 

“He’s a solid guy. Another sophomore who has a lot of tennis left in him.”

Junior Jack Gordon and sophomore Marcus Alcaraz play at No. 3 doubles.

“Marcus is one of our newcomers,” Conroy said. “Jack was at No. 4 doubles for us both years and has a lot of doubles experience under his belt.”

Seniors Toby Alcaraz and David Chafty are slotted at No. 4 doubles.

“It’s Toby’s first year full-time in varsity lineup,” Conroy said. “He’s a talented 4 doubles player. David was half of 3 doubles last year with his brother Matthew, who is not playing this year.”

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 Hackett Catholic Prep’s Rhodes Conroy (left) returns a shot as partner Ben Bridenstine backs him up. (Middle) From left: Jack Ford, Sam Magnell and coach Aaron Conroy. (Below) Hackett No. 1 singles player Nicholas DeForest, his injured wrist in a cast, watches his teammate defeat Kalamazoo Christian on Sept. 2. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)

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.)