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.)
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.”