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.)

Team of the Month: Negaunee Girls Tennis

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

October 21, 2022

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. 

So when coach Kyle Saari says this year’s team stands out among them, that’s actually saying quite a lot.

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.”