By Dennis Grall
Special to Second Half
NEGAUNEE - Pflat! Phlop! Ping! Pitter-patter of early rain drops. 30-love! Out!
Those were the sounds of tennis on this chilly, windy fall Wednesday in Michigan's Upper Peninsula at the MHSAA Division 2 Girls Tennis Finals.
Appropriately the sun finally peaked through the overcast skies as Iron Mountain's Katie Brule outlasted Iron River West Iron County's Maddie Waara for her second straight singles title at No. 1. Only a small handful of spectators were still around for the day's only three-set match to feel the little warmth provided by those rays, including the entire Ishpeming Westwood team that was waiting for a championship trophy presentation for a record sixth straight year.
The Patriots amassed 19 points and collected six of the eight flight titles. Westwood has nine U.P. Finals championships since 2004.
Iron Mountain, the 2008 champ, was second with 15 points, followed by West Iron County with 13, Munising with seven, Ironwood and Ishpeming with one apiece, and Gwinn.
Nine seniors helped Westwood retain title honors, with doubles again playing a major role in the success.
"That is how we win most of our matches, with our doubles," said Westwood's Faith LeRoy, who teamed with Olivia Derocha to secure No. 2 and conclude an unbeaten season.
Derocha said, "Our doubles are really important. It is also important to be undefeated. We challenged ourselves to reach that goal."
They beat Kathryn Brown and Hannah Hakamaki of Iron Mountain 7-5, 6-0 in the finale. "It was definitely a challenge to get started. It was cold," said LeRoy. "Our first sets have always been closer."
To which Derocha added, "Once we get going, it is good. We need a little warm-up."
The temperature was barely 50 degrees when the tournament began about an hour late because of rain that slicked the dazzling new courts at Negaunee High School, and the wind from the south made it feel chillier. Even the multi-hued trees above Teal Lake in the background didn't do much to warm up anyone.
Westwood coach Chris Jackson said depth is a key reason for the success in doubles and as a team. "The depth comes from our numbers," he said of a team that fields 30-40 players each fall.
"We feel like we offer a great student-athlete opportunity, the players enjoy themselves, and winning certainly doesn't hurt. Everyone likes to be a part of the program. We offer something for everyone."
While the Patriots dominated, Brule struggled to repeat. She won the final set 6-0, but that followed a 6-2, 5-7 opener against the gritty Waara.
With frustration showing several times after lost points in the second set, Brule said, "I tried to calm down and just tried to remember how I played and to play my game and not get upset. I tried to forget my mistakes."
Waara, who missed last season with an knee ligament injury incurred during basketball season as a sophomore, had trouble with Brule's powerful opening serve but was able to put the second serve in play and gather numerous points in her upset bid.
"You couldn't do a lot with her serve," said Waara, who also runs cross country this fall for the Wykons. "And it probably didn't help to take a year off from tennis."
Brule said relying on her second serve wasn't a problem, but noted "I wanted my first serve to have more power and make it more difficult for her."
Additional flight champions for Westwood including Gabby Hebert at No. 2 singles, Rachel Anderson at No. 3 and Lauren Fairley at No. 4; Lacey Pietro and Jamee Ferris at No. 3 doubles and Emily Carlson and Madysen Mattias at No. 4 also won flight titles. Katie and Emily Bugni combined to win No. 1 doubles for Iron Mountain.
PHOTOS: (Top) Katie Brule of Iron Mountain darts into the corner to return a shot Wednesday at the Upper Peninsula Division 2 Finals at Negaunee High School. Brule defeat Maddie Waara of West Iron County 6-2, 5-7, 6-0 for her second straight title at No. 1 singles. (Middle) Rachel Anderson of Westwood reaches to retrieve a ball that bounced high during her No. 3 singles final against Iron Mountain's Emily Chang. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
The Negaunee girls tennis team’s Upper Peninsula Division 1 Finals championship won Sept. 28 was its seventh over the last 10 seasons, to go with runner-up finishes the three seasons the Miners didn’t win it all during that time.
And what all of it says about his program is pretty defining as well.
Negaunee is the fifth-biggest tennis school in the Upper Peninsula, but with an enrollment count of 414 has about 700 fewer students than Marquette and even about 235 fewer than the second-biggest tennis school, Escanaba.
And yet, the program may be on its way to getting even stronger coming off this season’s championship, won with 19 points and flight championships at Nos. 3 and 4 singles and Nos. 2 and 3 doubles and earning Negaunee tennis the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” honor for September.
“We’ve been fortunate, really beyond the (last) decade, to just get solid groups of athletes out that want to compete. I think what happened, on the girls side anyway, is when we won our first Division 1 title in 2012, the next group that comes in wants to leave their mark and wants to do a little more,” Saari said. “When you have a solid group of leaders throughout the course of the last decade, it’s contagious with the freshmen and even trickles down to the middle school too.”
That might sound like an understatement given the success of the middle school tennis program last year, it’s first. More than 100 students attended, and the middle school has only about 450-500. The tennis program was for only sixth, seventh and eighth graders – so it’s fair to put an estimate at roughly 25 percent of the community’s middle schoolers had a racket in their hands.
They have plenty of standouts to look up to, as both Finals singles champions were freshmen and both doubles pairs finished the fall undefeated. Together, those six players are among 10 total starters who should be back next season. Negaunee will graduate only No. 1 singles Jordan Enright and No. 1 doubles Stella Harris.
Harris and sophomore Madison Frustaglio finished runner-up at the Final, and with No. 2 champs Olivia Lunseth and Sage Juntti and No. 3 winners Kallen Schultz and Madalynn Peters gave the Miners a comfortable predicament in August as Saari believed all six were capable of playing the No. 1 flight. As they powered to titles, Paytin Brunette and Autumn Ring finished out the strong doubles lineup with a runner-up Finals finish at No. 4.
On the singles side, the freshmen pair of Rheana Nelson at No. 3 and Lilliana Saunders at No. 4 anchored like veterans, joining No. 2 singles runner-up Aubrey Johnson and Enright at the top as all eight flights scored at least one point at the championship tournament.
Negaunee finished 13-0-1 in dual matches this fall, that lone tie coming midway through the season against more experienced Iron Mountain. The Mountaineers were on the cusp of victory when Nelson stepped in to seize the tie-saving point.
She and Saunders, because of their inexperience, carried some uncertainty entering this season. They also ended up major reasons why this championship team will continue to stick out among the many the program has celebrated.
“We felt pretty good about two freshmen stepping into our singles lineup. We knew they were athletic, and we knew they were high-character kids,” Saari said. “But at the same time, under pressure at the end of the year, you don’t know how they’re going to react.
“Those are two (singles) titles, as time has really went on, it’s put into perspective how special those two flights were for us.”