Amid Decade of Dominance, Negaunee's Latest Finals Title Stands Out

By John Vrancic
Special for

September 29, 2022

KINGSFORD — Negaunee has been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for the past decade.

The Miners showed why in earning their seventh U.P. Division 1 title in 10 years Wednesday with 19 points. They were followed by Marquette with 14, Escanaba 11, 2021 champion Ishpeming Westwood with eight, Gladstone three, Menominee one and Kingsford.

Negaunee won four flights on a sunny and seasonably cool day in Dickinson County.

“The U.P. Finals always require a gritty effort from all parts of your lineup,” said Negaunee coach Kyle Saari. “Coming into the season we had a lot of uncertainty in our lineup, but the girls answered the bell. This is one of the proudest titles in our program’s history. Our No. 2 and 3 doubles put together an outstanding effort. They went undefeated and didn’t lose a set all season. That’s a remarkable achievement within our program.”

Olivia Lunseth and Sage Juntti defeated Marquette’s Hosanna Brindle and Maija Parkkonen 7-5, 6-1 for the No. 2 title, and sophomores Kallen Schultz and Madelynn Peters took a 6-3, 6-1 decision from Marquette’s Eliina Brazeau and Nistha Gautum in No. 3.

Escanaba’s Sophia Derkos follows through on a shot during the same No. 1 singles semifinal. “I think everything went pretty well,” said Schultz, who won at No. 4 doubles a year ago. “We worked pretty well together and talked a lot on the court. It was chilly this morning, but we had good conditions this afternoon. I prefer to play at a fast pace and tried to place the ball more.”

This marked the first championship for Peters, who also enjoyed the milder conditions.

“Working with the weather conditions became a little easier as the day progressed,” she said.

“I was in and out of the varsity lineup last year. This was definitely different. It took a lot of hard work to get to this point. This will be a motivator for next year.”

Miners’ freshman Rheana Nelson topped Marquette’s Cecilia Jacuzzo 6-2, 6-1 for the No. 3 singles championship, and classmate Lilliana Saunders overcame a 5-2 deficit and other adversity late in the second set of a 6-2, 7-5 (7-6) triumph over Westwood’s Samantha Ruby at No. 4.

“This feels really good, but I had real bad cramping in my leg.” said Saunders. “I didn’t really know where we were in the standings. I felt I had to win for our team to win. After she went up 6-5, I just took it one point at a time. It feels great to win as a team.”

Nelson overcame numerous ups and downs by staying focused.

“I kept my focus throughout the season,” she added. “I approached this as just another match, and it kept me a little more calm. This is a good start to my high school career.”

Lyndsey Lake and Lexi Hammerstrom provided Marquette with its lone title in a 6-4, 6-2 defeat of Negaunee’s Paityn Brunette and Autumn Ring.

Escanaba junior Sophia Derkos earned her first U.P. Finals title by defeating Marquette’s Maia Miller 6-1, 6-1 in No. 1 singles.

“I knew where to place the ball and had my family here to watch,” said Derkos, who reached the No. 1 semifinals a year ago. “I worked on my game a lot more this year. I also worked on shots I didn’t have last year. It was real cold for the first match, then it warmed up and my muscles worked better this afternoon.”

Escanaba senior Delaney McIntyre and junior Natalie Williams enjoyed their moment in the winner’s circle following a 6-0, 1-6, 6-1 triumph over Negaunee’s Stella Harris and Madison Frustaglio at No. 1 doubles.

Marquette’s Kaia Miller reaches to send back a volley during her No. 1 singles semifinal.A key moment for the Eskymos duo took place in the finale when Williams converted on a groundstroke to make it 4-1.

"That was a big play,” she said. “That was also a momentum builder. They’re good players. They didn’t give up.”

This was the first U.P. championship for McIntyre.

“This is really special,” she said. “I thought our team did well. We’ve gone back and forth with Marquette and Westwood all year.”

Sophomore Tia Schone became Gladstone’s first U.P. Finals champion in four years in a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Negaunee’s Aubrey Johnson at No. 2 singles.

An overhead shot helped Schone gain a 3-1 lead in the second set. Johnson then changed her strategy, electing to lob the ball over the net which at one point helped her come within 4-2.

“An Iron Mountain girl did that in a match (at Gladstone) two weeks ago,” said Schone, who made the semifinals at No. 3 singles last year. “It didn’t catch me off guard. It helped to see that before. I’m definitely a faster-pace player, but I needed that practice. I just had to be patient and kind of wait for her to make a mistake. This is definitely a big step after taking fourth last year. I knew what to expect this time.”

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PHOTOS (Top) Negaunee’s Jordan Enright returns a volley during a No. 1 singles semifinal match Wednesday. (Middle) Escanaba’s Sophia Derkos follows through on a shot during the same No. 1 singles semifinal. (Below) Marquette’s Kaia Miller reaches to send back a volley during her No. 1 singles semifinal. (Photos by Dennis Mansfield.)

Reigning UPD1 Champ Negaunee Setting Pace Again as Finals Approach

By John Vrancic
Special for

September 21, 2023

ESCANABA — The Negaunee Miners have been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for nearly a decade.

Upper PeninsulaNegaunee, 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 VrancicJohn 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.)