KALAMAZOO — On a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon, coach Jeffrey Etterbeek was unexpectedly doused with an ice-water bath by a group of cheering, laughing, enthusiastic girls on the Stowe Stadium tennis courts at Kalamazoo College.
The girls and their coach were celebrating Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood’s fourth consecutive MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 title.
“Four-peat is pretty extraordinary, pretty special,” Etterbeek said. “Not many athletic teams can do that, so they can boast they did that.
“Other teams and other players are good out here, and you’re going to take some bumps along the way. I think winning is contagious. You get ahold of a little bit of it and you want to do some more. It’s fun to win.”
Cranbrook-Kingswood led by six points after Friday’s action which ended with the quarterfinals, and clinched the title during Saturday’s semifinal rounds. The Cranes totaled 35 points, followed by Detroit Country Day with 24, Grand Rapids Christian with 20, Allegan with 18 and Pontiac Notre Dame Prep with 15.
This is the third time Cranbrook-Kingswood has won four straight MHSAA team titles, and only the 13th time a streak that long has been achieved by a Lower Peninsula girls tennis team.
The title was bittersweet for senior Alex Najarian, who owns three individual MHSAA titles, all at No. 1 singles, and did not lose a match in four years heading into Saturday’s final.
Najarian, the top seed, was upset 6-2, 6-1, by sophomore Sara Daavettila, the second seed from Williamston.
Daavettila, who ran down everything Najarian threw at her, was playing her first season of high school tennis after being home-schooled last year.
“I knew Alex was playing, and it would be a good year for some good competition to play her before she goes off to (University of) Michigan,” Daavettila said of choosing high school this year. “I thought it would be fun.
“I’ve known her ever since I was little. I grew up playing with her in USTA events. We’re good friends. I just focused on the ball and not who she was, and it worked out. In the first few games, I was on a roll and playing well and hitting well. I was positive and saying I can beat this.”
Najarian said she felt a lot of pressure going into the final.
“I didn’t play my best, but she’s a very good player and I’ve played her before,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of close matches with her before and beat her twice. I knew coming in it was going to be tough, and it made me more nervous.
“There’s a lot of pressure because you’re the senior and you’ve never lost a match.”
Etterbeek said Najarian has been a key to Cranbrook-Kingswood’s success.
“She just ran into a buzz saw today,” the coach said. “The girl played as good as she possibly could have played. Alex should not hang her head. She’s meant everything to this program. She’s brought incredible leadership.
“That’s the only match she’s lost. That one match doesn’t diminish what she did by any means. We’re very proud of her accomplishments at the school.”
Williamston coach Steve Stanley said on a scale of 0-100, “I have helped (Daavettila’s) tennis game ‘zero.’ She’s had great coaches. She’s not only a great tennis player, but she’s very positive and incredibly enthusiastic for the team.
“She hits with her mom (Breita Daavettila), who was a competitive tennis player, and they have a court at their home. It’s mostly her mom and Tom Walker (coach at Court One in Okemos).”
The No. 2 singles final was one of the first on the court and, two and one-half hours later, the last one off.
Anna Short, the top seed from Cranbrook-Kingswood, defeated Country Day’s Haley Mullins, the second seed, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) for her second consecutive title at No. 2 singles. Both are sophomores.
“It was much more challenging this year,” Short said. “Haley just gets everything back. Plus the weather. It was just so hard. She played great.”
After losing the first set, “I kinda was just excited and hitting way too flat and hard. In the second set, my coach Steve Herdoisa told me to back off the pace and spin high and deep and then come in, and that helped a lot.”
Mullins said Short changed her game after losing the first set.
“She got a little bit more aggressive,” Mullins said. “She changed it up a bit and (hit) more lobs inside. She kept the point in play longer.
“It was a great match and she hit some wonderful shots at the end and I think that’s what made the difference, the last couple shots when it really came down to it.”
Many of the players also compete in USTA tournaments, but there’s a big difference, Short said.
“You have so much support being a team,” she said. “There’s the parents, obviously the players and when you’re on a court next to a teammate and they’re cheering you on when you’re down 3-6 in the first set, it’s pretty nice. In the USTA, you’re alone and you’re the only one cheering yourself on.”
Country Day started Saturday with 18 points, tied with Allegan and just one point ahead of Grand Rapids Christian. Although Cranbrook-Kingswood led by just six points after the first day, the Cranes had players in all eight semifinals flights.
“We screwed up a bit (Friday) with a couple of our doubles teams,” Country Day coach Jessica Young said. “We knew we had to be perfect today and (Cranbrook-Kingswood) had to take some early losses, and you can’t rely on someone taking losses. So we put ourselves in that predicament early on.
“We haven’t finished second in a lot of years, and I’m so proud of them. They fought really hard today. We had our 3 doubles (sophomores Sharmila Prabhu and Lydia Wang) make it to the finals, which wasn’t expected. Our 2 singles (Mullins) fought so hard in the heart-breaker. She’s such a fighter, and I’m so proud of her.”
After pulling out a three-set semifinal win, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, at No. 3 singles against Cranbrook-Kingswood’s No. 4 seed, sophomore Emily Harvey, top seed Madelyn Karoub defeated unseeded freshman Maddy Winarski of Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, 6-1, 6-1.
“I know Maddy very well and I know she’s a great player, so I was expecting a tough match, actually,” said Karoub, a Country Day senior who ended her high school career with her third Finals individual title.
“She lives in my area, so we practice together. I just played a good match. We had some really good points; I just finished them out. Of the three titles, this is the most important to me, so I’m happy to pull it out. It’s my last year playing. I’m not playing college tennis, so it’s my last team thing.”
Winarski, who was wearing a knee brace following the match, said she didn’t expect to make it as far as the finals.
“I expected to do well, but not this well,” she said. “I’ve been playing for a while, so I’ve been training for it. USTA helps a lot for the experience, but I wanted the team experience. I’ve never been part of a team.”
Notre Dame Prep coach Peter Riley was beaming after the match.
“This is the best finish we’ve ever had at a state tournament in school history,” he said. “A fifth place tournament, not bad at all with the range of talent here.
“(Winarski) started the season hurt. She had shin splints. When we did our challenge matches, she was losing. She wasn’t really ready to play until after Easter, and she raised her level up to No. 3 singles and I’m not surprised. She’s a fighter, and the nice thing is she’s a freshman.”
Runner-up last year at No. 4 singles, junior Sarah Carroll of Detroit Country Day captured the gold this year. The second seed defeated Cranbrook-Kingswood’s top-seeded junior Jazz Teste, 6-1, 6-3.
“My brother (Nick) was my coach this year and he made a really big difference,” Carroll said. “I didn’t let the nerves get to me, and I was able to stay calm. It was awesome. I was able to stay strong the whole match.
“We played two times before and I lost both times, so this was good.”
Teste said in spite of losing, she was thrilled with the team’s four-peat.
“I didn’t work as hard as I could,” Teste said. “I fell for some of her traps, her slices. This is the first state (tournament) that I have participated in and won. I’m really excited.”
Cranbrook-Kingswood won three of the four doubles flights with juniors Meg Phyle and Amanda Simmons winning at No. 1, senior Holly Meers and sophomore Amanda Twu at No. 2, and senior Lauren Lanzon and freshman Mackenzie Beckett at No. 3.
The Grand Rapids Christian duo of senior Rachel Harkema and junior Rachel Koopman took the No. 4 doubles title.
PHOTOS: (Top) Cranbrook Kingswood's Anna Short prepares to return a shot during a No. 2 singles match Saturday en route to winning her flight. (Middle) Williamston's Sara Daavettila volleys during her run to the No. 1 singles championship. (Click to see more at HighSchoolsSportsScene.com.)
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.
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.”