ANN ARBOR — There’s not a lot of difference between the tennis teams from Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood and Detroit Country Day.
Certainly not on the scoreboard; the teams tied for the Regional title last month, and Cranbrook edged Country Day 33-31 on Saturday to repeat as Lower Peninsula Division 3 champion at the University of Michigan.
And there’s also little difference in the minds of Cranbrook coach Grant Asher and Country Day mentor Jessica Stencel.
“We deserved second today," Stencel said. “They were definitely the mentally-tougher team. And maybe if the tournament was held tomorrow, it might have been different. But it really came down to if we would have taken one different flight, then it would have been a tie. We just had too many loose spots we couldn’t figure out.”
And the Cranes made the most of those opportunities.
“We knew it was going to be really tough,” Asher said. “We were evenly matched, but the girls played the big points really well and handled the pressure of the state championship really well.”
Among the flight winners for Cranbrook were Sienna Ilitch and Olivia Zhang, who repeated as champions at Nos. 3 and No. 4 singles, respectively.
“I think it had to be a little harder (to repeat),” said Ilitch, who was the top seed going into the tournament. “I had a tough match in the semifinals, and I had another tough match in the finals against (Melanie Bandara of) Country Day. She really stepped up and played hard. It was a good, competitive match.”
Ilitch and Zhang, both juniors, were in finals for the third consecutive year. For Ilitch, her victory Saturday helped ease the pain of her loss at the 2021 tournament.
“It might have been more exciting because my freshman year I lost in the final match of the day and we finished second,” she said. “This year, I ended up (clinching) the title for us.”
For one of Cranbrook’s seniors, Saturday’s final was all about nerves and keeping her teammates focused.
Inijie Gazayerli, one of Cranbrook’s co-captains, cheered on her team despite being sidelined by a recent case of mononucleosis.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “I mean, last season seems like yesterday, and I’m so proud of this team and what we've been able to accomplish.”
Grand Rapids Christian finished third with 23 points, led by Brynn Uchmann, who defeated Pontiac Notre Dame Prep’s Julia Gurne 6-1, 6-1 to take the No. 1 singles title.
Saturday’s Final marked the 12th year in a row either Cranbrook or Country Day hoisted the championship trophy.
In the end, it came down to the mental aspect.
“I’m usually able to keep calm, and I think that really helps me through really tough matches,” Zhang said.
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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.)