By Keith Dunlap
Special for Second Half
HOLLY – If anyone watching the Lower Peninsula Division 4 No. 1 singles championship match Saturday wondered why Jackson Lumen Christi junior Taylor Smith was jumping up and down so much in between points, she had a method to that madness.
The second seed going into the tournament, Smith had lost her previous two matches this season to top seed Natalie Moyer of Kalamazoo Hackett, and Smith learned one valuable lesson before their third meeting.
“I had to constantly keep moving my feet,” Smith said. “I couldn’t stand still. I had to keep going the entire time and keep jumping up and down. I couldn’t get to her ball (in the first matches). She smacks the ball really hard, and in order to get the ball back I had to keep moving.”
Smith kept moving alright, all the way to when she accepted the medal handed out to the MHSAA Finals champion after she avenged those two earlier losses to Moyer with a 6-2, 6-2 victory.
Smith’s title at No. 1 singles ended up propelling Lumen Christi to its best ever finish at an MHSAA Girls Tennis Final, as the Titans took second with 27 points.
But leaving Holly High School with the championship trophy for the first time since 2009 was Ann Arbor Greenhills, which finished first with 32 points to cap off a year full of motivation after Greenhills disappointingly took fifth at last year’s Final.
“I’ve always felt the best thing to do is be Zen about these things,” Greenhills coach Mark Randolph said. “If you want to hit the target, you want to try and not aim at the target. Our goal was to be in the hunt on Day 2, and if we were in the hunt on Day 2, it’s all about bliss. Let’s go out there and let it rip, and they did.”
Reigning champion Bloomfield Hills Academy of the Sacred Heart scored 21 points to finish in third place.
Greenhills showcased its depth in winning the title with champions in four flights and a runner-up finish in another.
Vidhya Rajaprabhakaran at No. 3 singles, Phoebe Sotiroff at No. 4 singles, the team of Baani Jain and Giselle Farjo at No. 2 doubles and the team of Jamie Todd and Ryan Perry at No. 3 doubles were the champions for Greenhills.
Julia Freeman advanced to the final at No. 2 singles before losing to Maggie Ketels of Kalamazoo Hackett, 6-1, 6-4.
“Every single one of these kids made a huge contribution under pressure,” Randolph said. “We have five super seniors who have been dreaming about this since they were ninth graders and we were getting our hats handed to us.”
Lumen Christi coach Teri McEldowney had mixed emotions after everything was decided.
On one hand, she felt winning it all was an obtainable feat for her squad, but she said a couple of hard losses Friday and a couple more Saturday were too much to overcome.
On the other hand, though, it’s never a bad thing to finish higher than any other team in school history.
“My girls played the best that they ever played,” McEldowney said. “They brought it here, and that’s what matters to me.”
In addition to Smith’s title, Lumen Christi’s No. 1 doubles team of Geraldine Berkemeier and Jocee McEldowney prevailed in a thrilling three-set match over Sara Gerard and Anna Keating of Sacred Heart, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
The Grand Rapids West Catholic duo of Elise Bolthouse and Izzi Nguyen won No. 4 doubles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ann Arbor Greenhills’ Julia Friedman returns a volley during a No. 2 singles match Saturday. (Middle) Jackson Lumen Christi’s Taylor Smith powers through a swing on the way to winning No. 1 singles. (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.”