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.)
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.)