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.)

Team of the Month: Negaunee Girls Tennis

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

October 21, 2022

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. 

So when coach Kyle Saari says this year’s team stands out among them, that’s actually saying quite a lot.

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.”