By Ryan Spitza
Special for Second Half
NEGAUNEE — All good things must come to an end.
After a five-year run as Upper Peninsula Division 1 champion, the Negaunee girls tennis team was dethroned by Marquette on Wednesday at the MHSAA Final played at the Negaunee Tennis Complex.
The Redettes claimed the team title for the first time since 2005, earning 17 points to the Miners' 10. Menominee was third with seven points, while Kingsford and Escanaba each had six and Gladstone three.
Marquette advanced to six out of eight flight finals, including all four singles matches, while the Miners advanced to three. The Maroons also competed in three flights, while the Flivvers made it to two flights and the Braves and Eskymos each to one.
It was a long time coming for Marquette, and head coach Derek Sandstrom has seen many athletes come through the program over the years who came up just a little bit short.
"It's been a while; it's been a long time," he said. "We've had a lot of great girls along the way who didn't get to this point, but I don't want to belittle them at all. We've had some great tennis players and great kids come through this program. This group is just the one that brought home a trophy."
Marquette had two losses in duals all season, both to the Miners. Those meetings were close though, and Sandstrom knew that things could've gone either way Wednesday.
“A couple of bounces here and there is all it takes,” Sandstrom said. “We played tough with Negaunee during the regular season. I told the girls, the last meet we played them, they won the match score but if you look at the actual scorecard, each team won 10. We were there, we just had to do something to get over the hump. Individually, some of the girls found their way."
The Redettes claimed four finals flights, two singles and two doubles.
In the top singles flight, Elysa Olivier topped Menominee's Jenna Nolde to cap an undefeated senior season and earn the third individual Finals title of her high school career.
"I just tried to focus and have fun," Olivier said. "We played earlier in the season, and I beat (Nolde) 6-0, 6-4 that time. She's a very good player."
Piercing cold weather in the 40s throughout the day didn't affect Olivier, who topped Nolde in two sets again, this time 6-0, 6-2.
"I actually prefer playing in the cold rather than the sun," Olivier said. "I don't really like serving into the sun. I don't think (cold) really affects you at all. You just need to conserve your energy."
Olivier will look to join her older brother Alec as part of the Ferris State University tennis programs next season.
The Redettes' other singles win came in the No. 2 flight, with fellow senior Mollie Kilpela topping Menominee's Josie Hofer in two sets, 7-6, 7-6.
Marquette also claimed Nos. 3 and 4 doubles, with the team of Zoey Brian and Ruth Hummell topping Escanaba’s Maddy Michica and Gracie Wickham 6-4, 6-4 in the third flight, while Julianna Golisek and Alyson LaBelle defeated Kingsford's Liz Penegor and Jenna Olkkonen 6-0, 6-0 at No. 4.
Sandstrom was pleased with his team's performance, and said this is only a small chapter in their lives ahead.
"The girls played well," he said. "We had some ups and downs throughout the year. Elysa and Mollie, they were the runner of the ship and we just followed their lead. We finally kept up with them all the way to the end of the year.
"I'm really proud of the girls. It's just a really cool group of kids. None of them are peaking at high school. They're all going to go on to bigger and better things, and this is something they'll remember when they come back for their 10-year class reunion and stuff like that. I'm proud of the way they came together as a team, and they all genuinely love each other. That's the cool part."
It was the end of a half-decade run for Negaunee, but the Miners still had a strong day winning three championship matches.
Lexi Mason defeated Marquette's Campbell Kallio at No. 3 singles in two sets, 6-3, 7-5. Negaunee also claimed the top two doubles flights, with the team of Morgan Carlson and Katelyn Lammi topping Menominee's Megan Francour and Emma Anderson 6-2, 6-1 at No. 1, and the team of Shaylee Menhennick and Tianna Williams edging Gladstone's Emily Marenger and Emma DeLaire 6-3, 6-2.
Miners coach Kyle Saari said it was a year of exciting challenges for his team, and he was proud of the way his players battled throughout a season of learning.
"Each and every year is fun," he said. "As you come into it, each and every year presents a little different and unique challenge. I was very pleased with the way we ended up going through the regular season with a team that was kind of learning on the go and learning as we kind of transitioned. I'm proud of our girls in that regard.
"What happens sometimes when you enter those tournament situations at the end of the year, sometimes that becomes the time where girls don't really know what to expect. A lot of girls will return next year. I think they've learned a lot from the conference and U.P. tournaments in terms of preparation and how to handle a match day and things like that. That'll be good for us moving forward."
Saari credited his three individual champions as well as the Redettes for putting out strong finals performances.
"At No. 1, Morgan and Katelyn have been super consistent all year long. They're good friends, they're both good athletes and their games have complemented each other well,” he said. “They've been good leaders for our team as a whole and the way that they practice, the way that they support the other girls, it's good to see them rewarded.
"Lexi at No. 3 singles put together a really solid year. She got better each time out and was definitely deserving of that No. 3 singles championship.
"Looking at the performance as a whole, the key for anybody is always getting flights through to the finals. Marquette had a tremendous day. They played well throughout their lineup and put six in the finals. We had three. We were able to win all three, but to win a U.P. Final, your depth really has to carry you. Some days it does, and some it doesn't."
The only final that didn't go to the Miners or Redettes was No. 4 singles, which saw Kingsford's Lizzy Cross defeat Marquette's Haddie Ketzenberger 6-3, 6-2.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette's Elysa Olivier returns a volley during a No. 1 singles match Wednesday. (Middle) Negaunee's Jillian Skewis sends the ball back while playing No. 2 singles (Photos by Amy Grigas).
ESCANABA — The Negaunee Miners have been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for nearly a decade.
Negaunee, 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 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.)