By Scott Keyes
Special for Second Half
MIDLAND – To say the Midland Dow girls tennis team enjoyed a boost playing close to home Saturday afternoon would be an understatement.
Dow coach Garrett Turner wasn't about to apologize after watching the Chargers win the Lower Peninsula Division 1 girls tennis championship at the Greater Midland Tennis Center. Dow had last won the title in 2009 and finished second last season and in 2010.
“We came out ready to go. We played a lot of great tennis, and we got the job done,” Turner said. “I was proud of what we accomplished seven years ago, and I couldn't be more proud of this year's team. We went out and battled a very tough Northville team and got the win. It's a true testament of how much we worked in the off season to prepare us for this moment. What a year. What an accomplishment."
Dow finished with 33 points to edge Northville, which finished with 30. Grosse Pointe South was third with 18 points, Ann Arbor Pioneer fourth with 17 and Rockford fifth with 14.
Northville, the reigning Division 1 champion, fought hard right up until the final match. But Dow's Caroline Szabo clinched the title for the Chargers by defeating Northville's Shanoli Kumar 6-2, 6-3 at No. 2 singles.
The win was redemption for Szabo, who was forced to watch last year's Finals from the sidelines because of an injury.
"Sitting out last season was hard to watch, especially when we were close to defeating Northville," Szabo said. "It was hard not being able to help the team.
"Watching last year, to clinching the title this year, it is pretty incredible."
Northville coach Linda Jones was confident the team would hang close to Midland Dow heading into the tournament, but she knew it was going to take some stellar performances by her team to get past the Chargers.
"To win it last year and to finish second this year is something that has never happened at Northville High School," Jones said. "These girls have worked so hard to make it this far and just miss winning another state title is extremely gratifying to our team. We knew Dow was doing to be tough, but our girls hung in there and fought to the end."
Of the eight flight championship matches, Northville and Dow competed head-to-head in six. Szabo gave Dow a win at No. 2 singles, while Sarah Ismail added a Chargers' win at No. 3.
Ismail beat Northville's Joanne Gao, 6-1, 6-3. Ismail, a sophomore, is in her first year at Dow and on the tennis team. She was home-schooled as a freshman and played in USTA tournaments.
Senior captains Afua Ofori-Darko and Kamryn Matthews repeated as No. 1 doubles champions for Dow, beating Northville's Serena Wang and Maya Mulchandini, 6-1, 6-0 to cap an undefeated season.
Ofori-Darko, a senior, said to end her career with a team championship is something she will always remember.
"I have won three individual titles in my career, but to finally get that team championship in my senior season is just icing on the cake," Ofori-Darko said. "My high school career is now complete."
Dow added another title in No. 2 doubles when the third-seeded team of Meghan Killmaster and Kelly Livingston upset Northville's Reeshma Kumar and Molly Bis.
Northville earned a win at No. 3 doubles when Neha Chava and Sophie Zhuang outlasted Mina Fabiano and Tatum Matthews of Dow, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2). The Mustangs added a win in No. 4 doubles when Brittany Macaddino and Alexandria Petix defeated Dow's Maggie Schaller and Marie Marche.
As mentioned, only two matches did not include Dow and Northville players facing off.
At No. 1 singles, West Bloomfield’s Anika Yarlagadda captured the title with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Raven Neely of Grosse Pointe South. Michi Ota of Ann Arbor Huron won No. 4 singles with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Emily Roopas of Ann Arbor Pioneer.
PHOTOS: (Top) A Midland Dow tennis player returns a shot during Saturday's Division 1 Finals at Greater Midland Tennis Center. (Middle) The Chargers pose with their first championship trophy since 2009. (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.)