By Keith Dunlap
Special to Second Half
HOLLY – MHSAA Finals championships are typically remembered forever in trophy cases of schools around the state. But sometimes there are championships that differentiate themselves more than others from a historical perspective.
No doubt, the championship the Grosse Ile girls tennis team captured Saturday is one of those unique pieces of history that will stand out forever.
Coach John Shade has presided over Grosse Ile’s program for 42 years, but never got to experience the feeling of winning an MHSAA Finals championship until the Red Devils won the Lower Peninsula Division 4 title on Saturday at Holly High School.
Grosse Ile won its first-ever championship by collecting 26 points, finishing five ahead of Kalamazoo Christian and six ahead of third-place Traverse City St. Francis.
Needless to say, there were a lot of fellow coaches who wanted to offer congratulations to Shade afterward, and there will likely be many more in the coming days who couldn’t be happier to see him win his first title with the girls after previously winning with the boys program.
“It’s nice to hear congratulations from your peers,” Shade said. “I think most people know me and know Grosse Ile.”
The Red Devils produced individual champions at two flights, Kennedy Quinn at No. 4 singles and the team of Rose Tucker and Casey Guthrie at No. 4 doubles. But it was the overall depth of Grosse Ile that stood out.
Ola Latala at No. 3 singles and the team of Karolina Kvasnitova and Elli Formentin at No. 2 doubles finished second in their respective flights, and Julia Formentin at No. 2 singles and the No. 3 doubles team of Katherine Kuzmiak and Luna Terauchi reached the semifinals to add more valuable points to Grosse Ile’s total.
The seeds for Grosse Ile’s title were really sewn at last year’s MHSAA tournament, where the Red Devils finished an agonizing three points behind champion Bloomfield Hills Academy of the Sacred Heart.
With much of its core returning, Grosse Ile knew this could be the time to win that elusive championship, and it was.
“This was our goal since last year,” Latala said. “We are all really excited that we are state champs. We really wanted to make our coach really proud.”
Redemption from last year was also a theme for Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard senior Colleen O’Brien, who finished off an unbeaten season by winning the title at No. 1 singles.
O’Brien, who will play at Michigan State University, lost in last year’s championship match, but avenged that by beating Calla Ramont of Lansing Catholic, 6-3, 6-2.
“I think I was motivated to win more,” O’Brien said. “I just never wanted to give up, and keep fighting. Obviously last year I needed to fight a little more to win that match. I just had that mentality.”
It often can be a mental strain for a player to try and keep a perfect season going, but O’Brien’s focus turned out to be too good.
“I blocked it out,” O’Brien said. “It didn’t really affect me too much.”
Gabriel Richard also had the champion at No. 2 singles, as Maddy Szuba beat Jessica Bouma of Kalamazoo Christian, 6-3, 6-2.
Audrey Bouma of Kalamazoo Christian beat Latala, 6-3, 6-1, to win the No. 3 singles title, and Quinn beat Sydni Greenhoe of Portland at No. 4 singles, 6-2, 6-3, to round out the singles portion of the tournament.
At No. 1 doubles, Sacred Heart’s team of sophomore Gretchen Lemon and senior Sarah Spangler beat Chrissy Flynn and Ella Anteau of Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in the final, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2.
In the semifinal, Flynn and Anteau upset the top-seeded team, Gabrielle Kelly and Stephanie Kelly of Ludington, and both Lemon and Spangler admitted they were surprised to not be facing the Ludington team in the final.
That set up a rematch from a regular-season match, when Lemon and Spangler rallied from a 5-0 deficit to win the first set and ultimately beat Flynn and Anteau.
Lemon and Spangler rallied again Saturday after dropping the first set.
“In the first set, we didn’t really realize their disadvantages,” Lemon said. “In the second and third set, we figured it out and that is how we won.”
Olivia Laman and Brooke Schneider beat Kvasnitova and Formentin, 6-4, 6-4, to win the title at No. 2 doubles, Sarah Stayman and Rosie Wilson of Traverse City St. Francis won the title at No. 3 doubles by beating Julia Maltbie and Claire Flewelling of Ludington in the final of that flight, 6-1, 7-5, and Tucker-Guthrie beat Brooke Butterfield and Morgan Wittkopp of Portland in the final of the No. 4 doubles flight, 6-2, 6-2.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Ile celebrates its first MHSAA girls tennis championship. (Middle) Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard's Colleen O'Brien returns a shot during the No. 1 singles championship match. (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.”