MATTAWAN — When Matt Boven first started coaching the Mattawan girls tennis team, he was “an 18-year-old coaching 18-year-olds,” he laughed.
Twenty years, a wife and two daughters later, Boven is still leading the Wildcats and racking up some impressive numbers.
During his tenure, Mattawan has eight top-10 finishes at the MHSAA Finals, including a ninth in Lower Peninsula Division 2 last year.
The Wildcats’ best Finals finish was a third-place tie with Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern, Holly and North Farmington in 2004.
The team also has six Regional titles and own eight outright Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference titles and 12 divisional championships. Boven was named Division 2 Coach of the Year for girls tennis in 2011 by the Michigan High School Tennis Coaches Association.
Their record over 20 years is 141-30-23. So far this year, the Mattawan girls are 3-1-1.
“In 20 years, we’ve never had a losing season,” Boven said. “For six years, we didn’t lose a dual match.”
Boven is relying on upperclassmen to lead the team this season after graduating eight a year ago.
His roster includes five freshmen and three others who played junior varsity last year.
“I think that we’re actually pretty good for all the players we lost,” said sophomore Kate Novak. “We’ve done well in most of our matches.”
Junior Meredith Smola, who plays No. 2 singles, agreed.
“We have a lot of incoming freshmen who are actually good,” she said. “We will do well if we stay focused and work hard.”
One reason for the Wildcats’ success over the last two decades has been the summer program Boven started.
“Last summer we had 240 participants,” he said. “Forty-five kids are also in the middle school program.”
The summer program runs from the end of June to the beginning of August, with former Wildcats players helping out.
“I think a part of the story is about the program that (Boven) is creating,” Mattawan High School principal Tim Eastman said. “He is working tirelessly at all levels.
“His camps are full each summer. His JV team is huge, and kids genuinely like him.”
Liking and respecting the coach is a key to the team’s success.
“He is so much fun,” Smola said. “He’s a combination of working and bringing fun to the team.
“When I’m playing matches and losing, he’ll come to the fence to help me. If it’s a long match, he brings fruit and granola.”
Novak said Boven is good at getting the team pumped for matches.
“He’s really fun and does a really good job of getting everybody excited for the matches,” she said. “He’ll give us a pep talk before matches and tell us we can win. No matter what, if we work hard, he’ll still be proud of us.”
Boven held a variety of jobs before settling in as an English and digital media teacher at Mattawan.
A multi-sport athlete at Mattawan High School, he played varsity tennis all four years but did not really focus on tennis until he was 17 years old.
He played two years of tennis for coach Darrell Davies at Kalamazoo Valley Community College before transferring to Western Michigan University, where he focused on academics instead of sports.
He also has coached the Kalamazoo College women’s tennis team and Hackett Catholic boys team, leading the Irish to a share of the LPD4 title in 2005, and was a teaching pro at the Portage Y and Battle Creek’s Mingus Creek.
All the while, he continued as Mattawan’s girls coach.
“I’ve always loved Mattawan, the school, the community, the people,” he said.
Stowe in sights
Qualifying for the Division 2 tournament to be played June 1-2 would be even sweeter this year.
Kalamazoo College’s Stowe Stadium is just down the road from Mattawan.
Novak, who has been playing tennis since age 3, made it to the No. 1 singles semifinals last year as a freshman and knows what to expect.
“That was really exciting,” she said. “I learned that no matter how old you are or how good you think you are, you can beat anybody or lose to anybody any day.”
Smola also learned an important lesson.
“It was really, really hot and I learned you have to bring lots of water and stay hydrated,” she said. “I had to default my second-round match because of heat stroke.”
Tennis is in her genes. “I started tennis at 7 or 8 years old,” Smola said. “My four older brothers played, so do my aunts, uncles, grandparents, mother. It runs in family.”
It is the same for Novak, whose father played at University of Iowa on a tennis scholarship. He is also an assistant coach for the Mattawan girls team along with Davies and Steven Norton, the school’s junior varsity boys team coach.
Boven said one advantage he enjoys while coaching girls is “they seem to really listen and seem to be much kinder. They have the ability to appreciate the moment and people around them. They realize that it’s more about relationships than winning.”
Two girls he is not coaching yet are he and his wife Valerie’s daughters, Olive, 4, and Penny, 1.
“I would love them to play tennis so I could hang out with them more, but right now Olive is more interested in princesses and Penny is more into Play-Doh,” he said.
Two freshmen round out the singles flights, with Camryn Baney at No. 3 and Lily Ross No. 4.
In doubles, senior Eleri Irish and freshman Juliette Langlinais compete at No. 1, while junior Grace Bonnema and freshman Olivia Eubank are at No. 2.
Senior Aubrey Hayward and junior Lilia Farrugia partner at No. 3 doubles.
Junior Payton Brinks and freshman Natalie Muresan round out the lineup, with juniors Alison Weems and Allison Thorpe available to sub.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Mattawan's Kate Novak attempts to return a volley during last season's Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals. (Middle) From top, Mattawan coach Matt Boven, sophomore Novak and senior Aubrey Hayward. (Below) Meredith Smola follows through on a swing. (Top action photo by HighSchoolSportsScene.com; head shots by Pam Shebest; bottom action photo courtesy of Mattawan athletic department.)
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.)