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.)

Senior-Dominated Iron Mountain Soars to UPD2 Finals Repeat

By Steve Brownlee
Special for

September 30, 2022

ISHPEMING — There was both a single reason and a singles reason why Iron Mountain won the championship at the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 2 Girls Tennis Finals played at Westwood High School on Thursday.

The difference is subtle — just a single letter “s” — but rings true both ways.

It was easy to see what the Mountaineers’ secret was — sweep the titles at every singles flight while adding one more in doubles just to be on the safe side.

IM finished with 19 points, while Ishpeming outdueled West Iron County in several late finals to eke out second place by one point, 14 to 13.

Gwinn posted five points to take fourth, while Munising had four, Norway one and Ironwood did not score.

Mountaineers coach Marcus Celello credited senior leadership for the team’s repeat championship.

“We have eight seniors on our team, including all four of our regular singles players and both our No. 1 doubles players, along with one each on Nos. 3 and 4 doubles,” the IM coach said.

He noted that all those singles flights were winners with the team’s championship in doubles also coming with the pair of seniors at No. 1.

“We won this last year and returned our core, so I knew we would at least be very competitive this year,” Celello said. “We won or tied every dual meet this season.”

He said that included a 4-4 tie against eventual U.P. Division 1 champion Negaunee to give the Miners the only blemish on their dual-meet record this fall.

“But sometimes when you haven’t faced adversity, it can be scary,” the coach continued. “You don’t always know how you’re going to react.”

The Iron Mountain and Ishpeming No. 2 doubles pairs face off during a semifinal. No. 2 singles player Aziza Burgoon — of course, a senior — completed an undefeated season by winning a marathon final over WIC’s Seanna Stine,  7-5, 7-5.

IM also got singles titles from No. 3 Natalia Brown and No. 4 Rediet Husing, along with a doubles championship from No. 1 Elle Lofholm and Anja Kleiman.

But the biggest cheers and shrieks came after IM finished its singles sweep when No. 1 Callie Bianco pulled off a 6-4, 6-4 win over Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel.

Schiefel led 4-2 in the second set looking to force a deciding third before Bianco won the final four games.

“I just was trying to stay focused, work the ball and follow through,” Bianco said. “And maybe the most important thing was to be patient, not panic.

“I’m known for being an impatient player. When I’m on, I like to be aggressive, but I know that when I’m not on, I have to focus on being patient.”

Asked if she was “on” Thursday, she was emphatic with her “Yes I was!”

One coach trying to be patient but excited for next season is Ishpeming’s Kaitlin Rich, who watched her junior-laden team set the groundwork for a big season next fall.

“We’ve already made a big improvement from last year,” she said. “I’m proud of how hard our girls have worked to make that improvement.

“Half of our players are dual-sport athletes, which means they’re playing another sport this fall, too, so they really have to balance their workload.”

The Hematites carted off one championship, one of the last finishing finals matches at No. 3 doubles when Kaitlyn VanDeuren and Paige Palomaki had to win a third-set tiebreaker to defeat WIC’s Bailey Hoffart and Aubrey Richardson 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-1).

That result decided the runner-up position team-wise as a Wykons’ win would’ve reversed their point totals and places in the standings.

“We had five finalists, at Nos. 3 and 4 singles and Nos. 1, 2 and 3 doubles,” Rich said. “We return nine of our juniors next year, so I’m really looking forward to next year. I think we should be ready to make a run at the U.P.’s (title) next year.

“Kaitlyn and Paige, those two by far are the most improved players from last year,” the Ishpeming coach added.

Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel returns a volley at No. 1 singles. WIC veteran coach Joe Serbentas was philosophical after his players won a pair of doubles titles, at No. 2 with sisters Autumn Smith and Kaitlyn Smith and at No. 4 with Destiny Lemery and Olivia Lamay.

“We’ve played well at the U.P.’s the last five or six years, but we also seemed to come up that point short,” he said. “Iron Mountain is so senior-loaded, you just knew that they were the big favorites today.

“We had a 5-7-1 record in dual meets, but we play a lot of the best teams in the U.P., so I still think that’s pretty good.”

Gwinn made a run at a U.P. flight championship for the first time in a number of years with Schiefel at No. 1 singles, much to her coach’s delight.

“She has such a passion for the sport, and she’s such an avid athlete,” Modeltowners coach Darcia Mattson said. “She runs track and is a phenomenal basketball player. She trains at AdvantEdge (athletic training facility in Marquette).

“She used to play tennis against her brother, Jared Rolland.

“And she’s not a big girl at all, but her heart is twice as big as she is.”

PHOTOS (Top) The Iron Mountain and Ishpeming No. 2 doubles pairs face off during a semifinal. (Middle) Anja Kleiman gets a racket on the ball during her and partner Elle Lofholm’s match at No. 1 doubles. (Below) Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel returns a volley at No. 1 singles. (Photos by Steve Brownlee.)