ANN ARBOR — Ann Arbor Greenhills girls tennis coach Mark Randolph had an interesting comparison after the Gryphons won their third Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals title Saturday.
“The way I put it, I’ve been gestating this team for four years,” he said. “I’ve not slept a lot the past couple of months, because I knew what we could do, but we had a couple kids come down with COVID, we had a broken foot, a rolled ankle. We had a kid who had a upset tummy. There’s always something, and every team has the same thing. So the job of a coach is to turn variables into constants.”
That he did. Greenhills had six flights reach Saturday’s finals at University of Michigan, four of them finishing as champions, on a team that had a near-total turnover in its singles lineup in 2022. Among the changes: Last year’s top singles players, seniors Georgie Branch and Rukmini Nallamothu, moved to No. 1 doubles.
They were champions in their flight this weekend, as were Shangyang Xia (No. 2 singles), Sophie Chen (No. 3 singles) and the No. 4 doubles team of Sabeen Malick and Meera Tewari.
The Gryphons, whose previous titles came in 2009 and 2017, ended the reign of Bloomfield Hills Academy of Sacred Heart, which had won three Division 4 crowns in a row and seven of the previous nine. Greenhills finished with 35 points, compared to 26 for Sacred Heart and 18 for third-place Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
One key for the Gryphons was a simple slogan Randolph used as a mantra: “All joy, no fear.”
“We kept saying it out loud,” Branch said. “It kept running through my brain while I was playing my final match. “All joy, no fear,” and I played like that.
But the Gryphons displayed no small amount of mental toughness.
Randolph said the team of Branch and Nallamothu epitomized the Gryphons’ grit in the final, defeating the Sacred Heart team of Marisa Nafso and Kayla Nafso in their third meeting of the season.
"We had a couple of matches where we were way down, or a two-point match and we fought back against good teams, and we got a lot of character points,“ Randolph said. "So we’re really, really proud of the way the kids fought.”
But the camaraderie the Gryphons enjoyed as a team also played a role.
"I felt like I reconnected with tennis in a different way,” said freshman Maddie Morgan, who reached the semifinals at No. 1 singles. "In USTA, it’s very competitive. The vibe isn’t as welcoming as high school season is. So I regained the ability to love playing tennis, and I really looked forward to the matches.”
Branch and Nallamothu, who last season played No. 2 and No. 1 singles, respectively, embraced both their new roles on the court and as team captains guiding a group with six freshmen.
"I did not enjoy playing singles,” Branch said. "It was so lonely, and this year to come out and play with my best friend and play 1 doubles together was like more than I ever could have wanted.
"All these freshmen who came in didn’t know that to expect,” Branch continued, "and we got to shape the team how we wanted it. We got to create the vibe we wanted and got to decide how we wanted it to go and how they can take it forward for next year."
The duo will be able to watch from a good vantage point: Both will attend nearby U-M next year.
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett’s Maddy Zampardo, a junior, defeated two-time champion Moorea McNalley of Clarkston Everest Collegiate 6-0, 6-4 to win No. 1 singles.
Zampardo enjoyed her first year of high school tennis.
"It was really cool because typically I don’t have a team when I play tennis,” she said, "so it was really nice to have a team supporting me and me supporting them. It was just a lot a fun and a cool experience to represent my high school.”
PHOTOS (Top) Ann Arbor Greenhills celebrates its third Finals team championship Saturday at U-M. (Middle) An Academy of the Sacred Heart doubles team receives a volley. (Below) Greenhills serves during a doubles match. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)
ESCANABA — The Negaunee Miners have been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for nearly a decade.
Negaunee, which came into this season as reigning Division 1 champion, has taken the U.P. crown seven of the past nine years. Ishpeming Westwood took the title in 2021.
Negaunee is 11-0-1 after a win over Gwinn on Tuesday. The tie came last week against Escanaba.
"We knew we were going to have a target on our backs," said Miners coach Kyle Saari. "We told the girls they have to be ready for every meet. The target is pretty huge, and I think we were sluggish out of the gate. I don't think we finished particularly well at the net. I think our tradition helps us for sure, although it can be a double-edged sword. We want to keep striving to reach benchmarks and make sure we don't get lackadaisical."
Sophomore Liliana Saunders is 12-0 at No. 2 singles. She was the UPD1 No. 4 single champion as a freshman.
"I'm starting to play my game," Saunders said after her 6-0, 6-1 victory over Escanaba’s Molly VanDamme. "I think I'm controlling the ball pretty well, but I need to work on my net play and improve my serving a little.
“Overall, we have a real strong team. We're pretty close-knit and play a lot over the summer. I think our tradition gives us a lot of confidence going into matches."
Saunders' summer work included a trip in early August to Escanaba, where she earned the age 16-18 title in the 76th Annual Michigan-Wisconsin Open with a 7-5, 6-0 victory over Escanaba senior Sophia Derkos.
"I think that really helped me," she said. "She's really a good player. My toughest match this season was against the Westwood girl (sophomore Samantha Ruby). The Gladstone girl (Addy Trombley) is also pretty good."
Derkos – last season’s UPD1 No. 1 singles champion – remained undefeated in five matches after taking a 6-0, 6-1 decision from Negaunee junior Aubrey Johnson at No. 1 singles last week.
"She's a good player, and they're a good team," Derkos said after the match. "This is a big win. I've been waiting to play them and Westwood. Those are the two toughest teams. This is a big confidence boost."
Johnson, last season’s UPD1 runner-up at No. 2 singles, bounced back with a 6-1, 6-1 triumph over Munising's Bailey Corcoran on Thursday and also won Tuesday, and gave Derkos her due after the Escanaba match.
"Sophia knows what she wants to do," said Johnson. "She plays at a pretty fast pace, and I didn't get to the net as much as I'd like. She's very patient. You can tell she's an experienced player. I can learn from playing against her."
The Miners, as they did in singles, split their four matches with Escanaba in doubles.
Seniors Sage Juntti and Olivia Lumseth are the reigning UPD1 champs at No. 2 doubles, and Kallen Schultz was part of the No. 3 champion last season and is playing No. 1 this fall with Madison Frustaglio, who was part of the 2022 runner-up at their flight.
“We have a very good coach. He always challenges us, so we can get better,” Juntti said. “We do our usual stuff. If it's not good, he just makes us work on it until it is good."
Except for the Escanaba tie and a 5-3 triumph over Westwood, all of the Miners' victories have been shutouts (8-0).
"The biggest part of our success is the girls are supportive of each other," Saari said. "They're all quality kids."
Negaunee's success also has made Escanaba coach Chris Ogren take notice.
"Kyle has been there a long time," he said. "They have one of the most athletic teams, and they're very disciplined. You always have to be ready when you play them.
“We have some good teams up here. You always have to be mentally prepared."
Negaunee hosts Gwinn, Menominee and Marquette before also hosting the Mid-Peninsula Conference tournament Sept. 27.
The U.P. Division 1 Finals will take place Oct. 4 in Marquette.
John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
PHOTO Negaunee’s Aubrey Johnson serves during her match against Escanaba’s Sophia Derkos on Sept. 13. (Photo by Mitch Vosburg/Escanaba Daily Press.)