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.)
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.”