Gazelles Cap Return Season with Familiar Celebration

By Pam Shebest
Special for

June 4, 2021

PORTAGE — Sisters Marisa and Kayla Nafso were ecstatic after pulling out a tough three-setter for the No. 4 doubles title Friday at Portage Central High School.

The last match off the courts, they had no clue that their team, Bloomfield Hills Academy of the Sacred Heart, won the team title at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 tennis championship.

They were stunned to learn that their semifinal win actually had been team title clincher.

“Oh, we won?” Marisa, a junior, said, grabbing her sister in a big hug.

“Wait, wait, wait. Our semifinal win? Oh my gosh, we won. That’s great!

“Wow. I really wanted to win individually, but the team makes it 20 times better,” Kayla, a freshman, exclaimed with a huge grin.

Sacred Heart finished with 29 points, six ahead of Traverse City St. Francis.

Just two points separated the next four teams.

North Muskegon and Portland tied for third with 18 points each, Grand Rapids West Catholic was fifth with 17 and Jackson Lumen Christi sixth with 16.

Marisa Nafso won a state title at No. 2 doubles in 2019, and her sister was thrilled to be her partner this year.

“I was really lucky because she won states when she was a freshman,” Kayla Nafso said.

“Because of her experience, I was more comfortable. It was great that I got to win as a freshman.”

The sisters said the final was the match that scared them the most.

The top seeds at their flight, they defeated Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian’s Delanie Minnema and Caroline Rudolph, the third seeds, 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-1.

“We were watching them play at the other site,” Nafso said. “Creds to the team we played for playing two three-set matches back to back.”

The team win was the Gazelles’ third Finals title in a row, but the first under coach Chris Shaya.

Clarkston Everest Collegiate tennisNeither the coach nor the players knew for sure they clinched the title until all matches were finished.

“I figured we won but I was going to wait for the team so we all could find out together,” Shaya said.

“None of us looked. I knew Traverse City was very strong in singles, and I knew we were strong in doubles. In singles, they competed extremely well. It was tough for us to overcome, and they deserve those wins.”

As a coach, Shaya said, “First of all, you want their experience to be fun. You want to teach them some life lessons about hard work and how that pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t pay off.”

At No. 1 singles, top-seeded Moorea McNalley finished the season undefeated after entering the tournament with a 28-0 record.

She lost just seven games over her four tournament matches.

The Clarkston Everest Collegiate junior defeated the second seed, Lilly Bobrowski of St. Francis, 6-0, 6-0.

McNalley also won the No. 1 singles title two years ago. (The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19).

As the top seed, she said she felt a bit of pressure coming into the tournament, “especially the further matches. They are all very good players.”

Bobrowski, a senior who plans to play tennis at Ave Maria University in Florida, said the two played earlier in the regular season.

“We went into a third set tiebreak then,” she said. “(Friday, McNalley) was definitely on her game and I made a few unforced errors, but it was a lot of fun.”

Senior Alexi Lewis, one of two St. Francis singles winners, defeated Sacred Heart’s Isabelle Burg, the second seed, 6-2, 6-3, for the No. 2 flight championship.

“My goal was to win but I got kind of nervous looking at the draw because I had never played the No. 2 seed,” the top seed said.

“All the other seeds I had played and had good scores against them, so I was really confident going in. I was preparing myself for playing the No. 2 seed — a lot.”

Lewis, who plans to play tennis at Hope College, said the afternoon wind was a factor in the match.

“That threw me off a little bit,” she said. “So much of it was just mental toughness. (Burg) was a really, really good player and could get the ball back with a lot of pace.

“It was just working against that and trying to find that little spot where I could move her around. The wind complicated all that.”

Lewis was also undefeated entering the tournament.

The other St. Francis singles champ was Jillian Sodini, the top seed at No. 3, who defeated Portland’s Adriana Krieger, 6-2, 6-1.

“I knew I had to keep my eye on the prize and stay calm with it and play my game,” said Sodini, who ended her senior season undefeated.

Traverse City St. Francis tennis“(Second place as a team) is awesome. We have six underclassmen this year and six seniors. You’ve just got to bring it at states. We’ve been pretty rowdy all day.”

“Rowdy” is the perfect word for one of the loudest and most supportive teams at the tournament.

First-year coach Dane Fosgard thought for sure this would be the year St. Francis won the team title after finishing runner-up three of the last five seasons.

“Just when you have a team you think is good enough to win States, it’s not good enough,” he said.

“We have good players coming up. This year’s going to be tough to beat.”

He gave a nod to his three senior singles players, all co-captains, for being leaders on the team.

“Six seniors and three of them went out as finalists and two state champs,” he said. “Those three seniors, Lilly, Alexi and Jillian, have worked so hard all four years of their high school careers, both on the court and off the court.

“Having those three on the same team is something special. They’re all No. 1 singles-caliber players.”

Seeded third at No. 4 singles, Olivia Eaker of Jackson Lumen Christi was the lowest seed to win a title.

She upset top-seeded Erika Graham, of Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard, 6-0, 6-4, in the final after defeating St. Francis’ No. 2 seed, Mary Chittle, 5-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 in the semifinal.

Graham also won her semi in three sets, 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-4, over fourth seed Eve Jackson of Sacred Heart.

Both Eaker and Graham were exhausted after their match, the next to last off the courts.

Just a freshman, “I don’t even know,” Eaker said, catching her breath, about winning the final. “I’m honored and very grateful for this.

“I feel amazing, excited. It was definitely tough. We both worked really hard for it. We gave it all we had.”

Other doubles winners included second seeds Reagan Nauta and Shannon Russell, from Grand Rapids West Catholic, 7-5, 6-2, over top seeds Lulu George and Maggie Pulte of Sacred Heart.

Top seeds Noor Simon and Angelina Kakos, also of Sacred Heart, defeated third seeds Hannah Nelson and Brooke Tietz from West Catholic, 7-6(5), 6-4, at No. 3 doubles.

At No. 4, second seeds Marilyn Gaston and Greta Goszkowicz, from North Muskegon, defeated West Catholic top seeds Olivia Vallone and Karlie Kurlenda, 6-3, 6-5.

Goszkowicz, a senior, was one of the most exuberant winners, commenting, “My goal was to make it to the second day.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sacred Heart’s Marisa Nafso returns a volley during her and sister Kayla’s championship match win at No. 1 doubles Friday. (Middle) Clarkston Everest Collegiate's Moorea McNalley follows through on a return during her No. 1 singles championship match. (Below) Lilly Bobrowski scored big for Traverse City St. Francis also advancing to the No. 1 singles final. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

Reigning UPD1 Champ Negaunee Setting Page Again as Finals Approach

By John Vrancic
Special for

September 21, 2023

ESCANABA — The Negaunee Miners have been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for nearly a decade.

Upper PeninsulaNegaunee, 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 VrancicJohn 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.)