D1 Powers Share Title, Frosh Phenom Rises

June 3, 2017

By Perry A. Farrell
Special for Second Half

MIDLAND – Ann Arbor Pioneer coach Tom Pullen has watched his participation numbers decline for girls tennis, but he knew he had a great player coming this year in freshman Kari Miller.

The 15-year-old comes from great bloodlines, and as the top seed proved she was up to the challenge by capturing the Lower Peninsula Division 1 No. 1 singles title at the Midland Tennis Center with a 6-1, 6-0 victory over sophomore Tia Mukherjee of Bloomfield Hills on Saturday.

Her aunt, Annie Miller, played on the pro circuit and at one point reached the top 40. She gave 14-year-old Serena Williams one of her first losses as a professional. Annie Miller’s picture is displayed at the Midland Tennis Center, where she spent years honing her game.

Father David Miller starred at Midland Dow, and they still talk about his loss to a Pioneer player back in 1991 tournament.

“He said that was a crazy match,’’ said Kari.

Now his daughter is the star at Pioneer.

“The expectation was to win, and I thought I could win,’’ said Miller. “I played Tia before in USTA, and that helped. I felt good for the most part. There were a few games where my backhand wasn’t its best, but I was able to fix it. I felt good the whole match.’’

Miller broke Mukherjee in the fourth game to go up 3-1 and cruised to the victory.

“She has it all,’’ said Pullen of Miller. “She has the heart and the brains. She has all four things you need; she has the length, the strokes, the brains and the heart. I just put her out there and say go get ‘em.’’

Miller breezed through the season and with reigning No. 1 singles champion Anika Yarlagadda of West Bloomfield deciding not to play high school tennis, the battle for the top spot came down to Miller, Maja Pietrowicz of Sterling Heights Stevenson,  Mukherjee and Ava Thielman of Utica Eisenhower. Thielman lost to Mukherjee in the semifinal.

“I really like my team; it’s really fun,’’ said Miller. “It’s a team, and I like it because kids from my school start to know that I’m good at it and I like that.’’

Her teammates started laughing behind her.

“Playing (USTA) tournaments is not like being in school, so only my closet friends know about what I do.’’

Miller rose as high as sixth in the nation at 14-and-under on the United States Tennis Association tour and now plays 16- and 18-under.

She wasn’t the only freshman to win a singles title. Northville freshman Tori Mady beat Alayna Bowman of Rockford, 6-0, 2-6, 6-1, at No. 4.

And that ended up a significant win for an additional reason. The battle for the team title came down to 2016 runner-up Northville and reigning champion Midland Dow. Both finished with 30 points to share the championship.

“The key is no cell phones at practice and no sweets during the season,’’ said Northville Coach Linda Jones. “We were playing in a quad and a mother brought chocolate chip cookies. I said, ‘Are those sugar free?’ And she said no and walked away.’’

Renee Torres clinched the tie with Northville, rebounding from a 1-6 loss in the first set to win the last two 6-1, 6-3 over Dow’s Hadley Camp at No. 3 singles.

“I knew she had played three sets in the semifinal, and I could sense she was getting tired,’’ said Torres. “I felt the match changed in the second set.

“Getting a tie for the team title is great. We’ll take it.’’

Dow’s Sarah Ismail, the reigning No. 3 singles champ, won the title at No. 2 singles over top-seed Laurel Sullivan of Grosse Pointe South, 6-2, 6-4.

“I played her earlier this season, and I actually lost,’’ said Ismail. “It’s good to come back. I was just more confident. I was making more shots and following through more. This year I had a lot more competition at states. Last year I only had the final, really. I lost to Northville twice this year, so it was really good to come back and beat them when it mattered.’’

Trying to repeat, Ismail said they felt the heat.

“It’s a lot of pressure when you’ve already won,’’ she said. “People are gunning for you the whole season. We just have a really big rivalry with Northville. We’re head-to-head all the time. I think the momentum from Friday carried over. Everyone was just confident in themselves. We all have nerves, but we all came in and we were playing really well.”

Part of Dow’s incredible story was senior Caroline Szabo.

She won No. 2 singles a year ago, but suffered a right shoulder injury and had to have surgery, which threatened to end her season before she started.

“I started practicing here (left-handed) with the little kids,’’ said Szabo. “The joint was too loose and they had to surgically tighten it. As the season went on I could hit it pretty well, but I wasn’t in the lineup. When I was cleared by my doctor I asked Mr. (Garrett) Turner, ‘Do you think this is an option?’’’

The coach said OK, and she played her first match in March, left-handed, against rival Midland at No. 3 doubles with partner Christina Vanerkelen.

“I was terrified,’’ Szabo said. “I went to serve and said this is really happening. Christina played great all year, and she really carried me.’’

Szabo will go back to playing right-handed at Michigan State.

The duo beat Connie Gao and Andrea Nam of Northville 6-3, 3-3 when Northville had to retire, ironically, because of a shoulder injury.

Although they didn’t play together much of the year, Dow’s No. 4 doubles team of Maggie Schaller and Reema Patel defeated top-seed Lauren Ruby and Kaela Bernard of Bloomfield Hills, 6-4, 7-6.

“We interchange the lineup to see who plays the best together,’’ said Patel. “We played Bloomfield Hills before and lost to them in a tie-break. We knew how to prepare for the match. We know every point is important if we want to win the state championship.’’

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PHOTOS: (Top) A doubles pair celebrates during the LP Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Ann Arbor Pioneer freshman Kari Miller returns a shot on the way to winning No. 1 singles. (Below) Midland Dow, top, and Northville shared the team title. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

Cranbrook Enjoys Slight Edge This Time in Rematch of Frequent Contenders

By Tim Robinson
Special for MHSAA.com

June 3, 2023

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.”

Division 3 tennisAnd 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.”

Division 3 tennis - WilliamstonFor 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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PHOTOS by High School Sports Scene