By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
GRAND BLANC TOWNSHIP — Athletes sometimes have a mantra they repeat to get through tough patches in the heat of competition.
Power-packed words like “compete,” “strong” and “courage” often provide a mental boost to the struggling athlete.
So, what went through the mind of Bloomfield Hills Lahser junior Mollie Fox with the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 No. 1 singles championship on the line?
“‘Angry bubbles and elephants,’” she said. “Those are the words I repeat to myself to laugh and keep things more lighthearted, just when things start to get close.”
There were plenty of tense moments for the top-seeded Fox, who was pushed to a rare three-set match before emerging victorious by a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 score over previously unbeaten senior Sara Remynse of Richland Gull Lake on Saturday at Genesys Athletic Club.
Fox broke Remynse’s serve in the third set to take a 4-2 lead. A break by Remynse closed the deficit to 5-4 before Fox closed it out on her opponent’s serve.
After taking a 4-1 lead in the first set, it was a battle all the way for Fox, who was upset in last year’s semifinals after also coming in with a No. 1 seed.
A relaxed approach helped Fox overcome the burden of high expectations.
“I went in with a little less pressure than before, knowing it’s a game and whatever happens will happen,” Fox said.
Remynse was the Division 3 runner-up as a freshman in 2010. She didn’t play high school tennis the last two seasons, focusing on United States Tennis Association tournaments. After signing with the University of Michigan in the fall, she decided it would be fun to play high school tennis as a senior.
Remynse beat Fox in a USTA tournament last summer, but wound up on the short end of a highly competitive match on Saturday.
“She’s a really good player,” Remynse said. “She deserved to win. She was the better player in the third set. I can’t be mad.”
Birmingham Marian, a powerhouse in Division 2, added a second MHSAA championship to its string of 19 consecutive top-10 finishes. Marian beat Birmingham Seaholm, 27-23. Ada Forest Hills Eastern finished among the top three for the 11th straight year, placing third with 21 points.
“People didn’t think we were going to be as good as what we were,” Marian coach Lincoln Wirgau said. “We have 14 girls on our team, myself and my assistant. We circled up after our team was set, and it was us 16 against everybody else; we were fine with that. I like our odds with those girls and our six seniors.”
A common thread for this year’s team and Marian’s 2010 squad is the presence of a Lunghamer sister.
Kelly Lunghamer was the No. 3 singles champion, and Kristin Lunghamer made the No. 1 doubles semifinals in 2010. This year, freshman Breann Lunghamer matched Kelly’s feat by winning No. 3 singles.
After winning a marathon 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 semifinal over Mason’s Samantha Perkins, Lunghamer won the title with a 6-3, 6-2 decision over Claire Markley of Seaholm.
“I always saw them winning state titles and never knew what a state title was like,” Lunghamer said. “I always watched them being excited and happy about it. It’s pretty cool.”
Lunghamer was Marian’s only singles champion. The Mustangs also had champions at No. 2 doubles, with first-time finalists Tatyanna Dadabbo and Sally Thorensen winning.
Okemos sophomore Emily Struble repeated as No. 2 singles champion in dominant fashion, winning 48 games and losing only five in four matches. She led 5-0 in the first set of the finals against Lauren Dietz of Marian, then lost two games in a row before regrouping for a 6-2, 6-0 victory.
The No. 1 doubles championship duo of senior Nancy Benda and junior Jackie Meier of Seaholm never played together before this year.
Benda was a successful singles player, losing in the semifinals in 2011 and the second round last season in the No. 1 flight. Because of a wrist injury, it was determined that playing doubles would be best for her.
“It was definitely a different game,” Benda said. “I wasn’t used to doubles at the beginning of the season. It was an adjustment period, but Jackie and I came together. It was mostly getting used to the court and having two girls on the other side of the net. There’s more strategy involved.”
Meier was on the championship No. 3 doubles team last year before making the leap in competition to No. 1 doubles.
“At No. 1 doubles, every single team comes out to play so hard,” Meier said.
Lahser won half of the singles titles, with Meryl Reams taking the No. 4 flight with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Catherine Yaldoo of Marian.
Forest Hills Northern’s Stephanie Nguyen and Sarayna Sundaram won No. 3 doubles by beating Kyra Fitz and Danny Harro of East Grand Rapids, 6-2, 6-0.
Seaholm’s Lauren Benderoff and Sam Lareau won No. 4 doubles by a 6-2, 6-1 score over Charlotte Garrison and Madison Lorenz of Bloomfield Hills Andover.
PHOTOS: (Top) Birmingham Marian's Sally Thorensen returns a shot during Saturday's LP Division 2 Finals. She and partner Tatyanna Dadabbo won the No. 2 doubles flight. (Middle) Lahser's Mollie Fox won the No. 1 singles championship, taking the final match in three sets. (Below) Birmingham Seaholm's Nancy Benda and Jackie Meier (left) shake hands with Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern's Victoria Minzlaff and Shelby Moored after winning the No. 1 doubles final. (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.”