By Jeff Febus
Special for Second Half
HOLLAND – The Detroit Country Day dominance continues in MHSAA girls tennis.
The Yellowjackets captured their third consecutive Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship Saturday afternoon at Hope College, posting a final team score of 38 points. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood – an eight-time Division 3 girls tennis title winner – was second with 22 points followed by Ada Forest Hills Eastern with 21.
A year after claiming 39 out of a possible 40 points at the Finals, Country Day reverted to near-perfect form as it claimed all four singles flights and three of the four doubles flights.
Country Day entered the day owning only one of the top seeds in the four doubles flights, but pulled upsets at No. 1 and No. 4. Seeded second, Heather Zimmerman and Nina Khaghany pulled off the upset win at No. 1 doubles, defeating the top-seeded tandem of Kate Cao and Amelia Smith of Cranbrook Kingswood 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.
At No. 4 doubles, the second-seeded duo of Anushri Radhakrishnan and Maria Sicilia from Country Day topped Cranbrook Kingswood’s top- seeded team of Simrin Nagaraju and Mia Inakage 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. Country Day also won at No. 3 doubles as its team of Maya Nassif and Ruhi Nayak downed Allegan’s team of Delaney Heckman and Maddy Layton 6-4, 6-2 in the final.
“I thought our doubles teams really rose to the occasion today,” said Country Day head coach Jessica Stencel. “We had a couple of two seeds and a four seed, and the two seeds came up with the upsets.”
Stencel noted that the upset at No. 1 doubles was filled with emotion. “We had lost to them two times in straight sets during the regular season, so it was a really emotional match for (our No. 1 doubles),” said Stencel. “They knew they had to play really well to win. They rose to the occasion and didn’t look back. We’re really proud of them because it was the best tennis they played all year.”
In singles action, the Yellow Jackets came in with the top seed in all four flights and held serve. “In singles we had a few obstacles today, but our singles players fought like they have all year,” Stencel said. They’re really talented girls, so it wasn’t a surprise that we came out on top there.”
Leading the charge was freshman Julia Fleigner, who did not drop a set during the weekend and cruised to a 6-3, 6-1 victory over third-seeded Claire Danko of Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the championship final. “She’s a great leader and a top-20 player individually in the country,” said Stencel. “She’s such a great girl, and we’re really lucky to have her.”
According to Fleigner, playing in front of teammates made a difference. “It was great. It’s amazing to work with this team and be state champions together,” she said. “It’s the best feeling. There were definitely some nerves today. There’s a little bit of pressure being here on the big stage, but it’s better to be out here with the team and feeling the support.”
Fleigner’s championship at No. 1 singles came a year after current teammate Monique Karoub won the No. 1 singles crown. The emergence of Fleigner provided Country Day greater firepower but also bumped the reigning No. 1 singles champion down a flight. A junior, Karoub won the No. 2 singles title with a 6-0, 6-3 win over Deena Haddad of Flint Powers Catholic.
“She’s a competitor. No one is going to be happy from going from No. 1 to No. 2 when they’re that much of a competitor,” said Stencel of her junior captain. “Monique also has a lot of respect for Julia. They know each other well off the court. When Julia took that number one spot, she was happy for her but she knew that she still had a big position on the team. No. 1 singles doesn’t get more points than No. 2 singles. She’s a very good sport about things. She’s a team captain. She’s well respected by her teammates. I can’t speak enough positive things about her.”
Despite playing at the No 1 singles spot before, Karoub felt nerves of her own Saturday. “I was really nervous,” said Karoub. “I get nervous coming out here every year. There was a lot more pressure knowing that since I won (No. 1 singles) last year I should be able to win it at a lower spot, but I was able to use that pressure to help me. I just used what my coaches were telling me. We’re a close-knit team, and the support of my teammates really helps.
Also claiming singles titles for Country Day were Elle Hartje and Alexis Nardicchio. Hartje was a 6-0, 6-0 winner over Claire VerBrugge of Forest Hills Eastern at No. 3 singles, while Nardicchio was a 6-0, 6-0 winner over Avneet Deol of Forest Hills Eastern at No. 4.
Cranbrook Kingswood was the lone school to break through the Country Day brigade, winning the title at No. 2 doubles. The Cranbrook Kingswood team of Sophia Moustakas and Abby Foltyn won a spirited 7-6 (4), 6-4 match over Allegan’s tandem of Emma Phillippus and Nicole Galloway. The victory allowed Cranbrook Kingswood to seal second place in the final team standings.
“It’s always tough to beat a team with an all-star lineup like Country Day, but I thought we competed extremely well,” said Cranbrook Kingswood head coach Steve Herdoiza. “I am happy with our performance. All in all the weekend was a great success. It gives us confidence for next year. We came together as a group and really peaked at this tournament. I think we played some of our best tennis here. We are a junior-laden team, so I think next year we will be full of confidence.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Country Day’s Julia Fleigner returns a volley during a No. 1 singles match Saturday at Hope College. (Middle) Cranbrook Kingswood’s Kate Cao returns a low shot at No. 1 doubles. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
ISHPEMING — There was both a single reason and a singles reason why Iron Mountain won the championship at the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 2 Girls Tennis Finals played at Westwood High School on Thursday.
The difference is subtle — just a single letter “s” — but rings true both ways.
It was easy to see what the Mountaineers’ secret was — sweep the titles at every singles flight while adding one more in doubles just to be on the safe side.
IM finished with 19 points, while Ishpeming outdueled West Iron County in several late finals to eke out second place by one point, 14 to 13.
Gwinn posted five points to take fourth, while Munising had four, Norway one and Ironwood did not score.
Mountaineers coach Marcus Celello credited senior leadership for the team’s repeat championship.
“We have eight seniors on our team, including all four of our regular singles players and both our No. 1 doubles players, along with one each on Nos. 3 and 4 doubles,” the IM coach said.
He noted that all those singles flights were winners with the team’s championship in doubles also coming with the pair of seniors at No. 1.
“We won this last year and returned our core, so I knew we would at least be very competitive this year,” Celello said. “We won or tied every dual meet this season.”
He said that included a 4-4 tie against eventual U.P. Division 1 champion Negaunee to give the Miners the only blemish on their dual-meet record this fall.
“But sometimes when you haven’t faced adversity, it can be scary,” the coach continued. “You don’t always know how you’re going to react.”
No. 2 singles player Aziza Burgoon — of course, a senior — completed an undefeated season by winning a marathon final over WIC’s Seanna Stine, 7-5, 7-5.
IM also got singles titles from No. 3 Natalia Brown and No. 4 Rediet Husing, along with a doubles championship from No. 1 Elle Lofholm and Anja Kleiman.
But the biggest cheers and shrieks came after IM finished its singles sweep when No. 1 Callie Bianco pulled off a 6-4, 6-4 win over Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel.
Schiefel led 4-2 in the second set looking to force a deciding third before Bianco won the final four games.
“I just was trying to stay focused, work the ball and follow through,” Bianco said. “And maybe the most important thing was to be patient, not panic.
“I’m known for being an impatient player. When I’m on, I like to be aggressive, but I know that when I’m not on, I have to focus on being patient.”
Asked if she was “on” Thursday, she was emphatic with her “Yes I was!”
One coach trying to be patient but excited for next season is Ishpeming’s Kaitlin Rich, who watched her junior-laden team set the groundwork for a big season next fall.
“We’ve already made a big improvement from last year,” she said. “I’m proud of how hard our girls have worked to make that improvement.
“Half of our players are dual-sport athletes, which means they’re playing another sport this fall, too, so they really have to balance their workload.”
The Hematites carted off one championship, one of the last finishing finals matches at No. 3 doubles when Kaitlyn VanDeuren and Paige Palomaki had to win a third-set tiebreaker to defeat WIC’s Bailey Hoffart and Aubrey Richardson 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-1).
That result decided the runner-up position team-wise as a Wykons’ win would’ve reversed their point totals and places in the standings.
“We had five finalists, at Nos. 3 and 4 singles and Nos. 1, 2 and 3 doubles,” Rich said. “We return nine of our juniors next year, so I’m really looking forward to next year. I think we should be ready to make a run at the U.P.’s (title) next year.
“Kaitlyn and Paige, those two by far are the most improved players from last year,” the Ishpeming coach added.
WIC veteran coach Joe Serbentas was philosophical after his players won a pair of doubles titles, at No. 2 with sisters Autumn Smith and Kaitlyn Smith and at No. 4 with Destiny Lemery and Olivia Lamay.
“We’ve played well at the U.P.’s the last five or six years, but we also seemed to come up that point short,” he said. “Iron Mountain is so senior-loaded, you just knew that they were the big favorites today.
“We had a 5-7-1 record in dual meets, but we play a lot of the best teams in the U.P., so I still think that’s pretty good.”
Gwinn made a run at a U.P. flight championship for the first time in a number of years with Schiefel at No. 1 singles, much to her coach’s delight.
“She has such a passion for the sport, and she’s such an avid athlete,” Modeltowners coach Darcia Mattson said. “She runs track and is a phenomenal basketball player. She trains at AdvantEdge (athletic training facility in Marquette).
“She used to play tennis against her brother, Jared Rolland.
“And she’s not a big girl at all, but her heart is twice as big as she is.”
PHOTOS (Top) The Iron Mountain and Ishpeming No. 2 doubles pairs face off during a semifinal. (Middle) Anja Kleiman gets a racket on the ball during her and partner Elle Lofholm’s match at No. 1 doubles. (Below) Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel returns a volley at No. 1 singles. (Photos by Steve Brownlee.)