Mattawan's Novaks Claim League Titles, Ready to Pursue Next Championship Goals

By Pam Shebest
Special for

May 17, 2022

MATTAWAN — In a family steeped in tennis history, one member is forging his own path.

Southwest CorridorMatt Novak has been tearing up the course as Mattawan’s top golfer.

The sophomore won the individual medalist honor in the 36-hole Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference Championship two weeks ago and carded the best nine-hole average in SMAC West matches this season.

“He’s having quite a year so far, and we are just very excited to take this ride with him,” Mattawan’s first-year coach Troy Pelak said.

Novak’s sister, Lizzie, is also having a stellar season as the Wildcats’ top tennis player.

She, too, won the SMAC Championship last weekend and, after recovering from an early-season injury, takes a 9-0 record into this week’s Regional.

“Her big win (this year) was vs. Forest Hills Northern (ranked No. 1 in the state in Lower Peninsula Division 2),” said Matt Boven, in his 24th season coaching the Wildcats.

Mattawan tennis is ranked sixth.

As a freshman, Lizzie Novak won the LPD2 Finals No. 2 singles title playing behind her sister, Kate, who is now playing tennis at Bucknell (Pa.) University.

COVID-19 caused Lizzie Novak’s sophomore season to be canceled, and she opted to play USTA tournaments her junior year but hopes to add one more MHSAA title to her resume.

Mattawan athleticsIf she does, she will finish with just one fewer than her dad, David Novak, who won three state titles at Hackett Catholic Central, one at No. 2 singles in 1983 and two at No. 1 singles (1985, 1986).

Matt Novak played tennis at a young age, but “I didn’t like it as much as my sisters did, so I decided to pursue golf more in the summer,” he said.

“I like that you’re really out there by yourself, and you’re playing against the course and not a specific person. You push yourself every single time you’re out there.”

The sophomore also plays hockey during the winter, which has helped his golf game.

“A couple of my coaches taught me how to be a good leader,” he said. “I think I translated a lot of my leader skills from hockey into golf.”

That includes his slap shot which “definitely helps with power off the tee in that long ball,” he said.

Pelak said although Matt is the youngest on the team, he is the team leader.

“We had an event earlier in the year and we took third of 21 teams,” Pelak said. “The team said, ‘This is pretty good,’ and Matt said, ‘Guys, we’re here to win, not place third.’ That’s the message he sent right away.”

Junior Will Kuiper said teammates have a lot of respect for Novak.

“He knows a lot about golf, and he wants to help the team get better,” Kuiper said. “He’ll help you after practice.

“He’ll be hard on us sometimes, but he just wants us to get better. He just wants the team to win.”

That passion for golf sometimes leaves Novak out of family chatter.

“I feel singled out at the dinner table when they’re all talking about their tennis and I’m over here just thinking about golf,” he said, laughing.

His sister agrees.

Mattawan tennis“We’ll go full tennis and Matt will go, ‘What about me?’ We’ll try to turn to him, but no one can relate to him as much,” she said.

“I think he has the attitude for tennis, but I think it’s kinda fun that he has something different from tennis. Golf is more exciting for him.”

The senior, who is headed to University of Richmond in the fall, is also a team leader.

“I feel I bring a lot of leadership and energy and excitement,” she said. “Some of these players are so much more inexperienced.

“I’m trying to get everyone together on and off the court. I’ve been having a blast. We’ve improved every week, and I hope we can make it to State.”

Tennis suits her, Lizzie Novak said.

“I feel like I’m kind of a control freak,” she said. “I like everything a certain way, and I don’t want someone else to mess up. I can mess up.”

She thanks her sister for steering her to tennis.

“I was obsessed with my sister when I was younger, and she started playing tennis, so that’s what I’ll do,” she said. “She quit dance, I quit dance. It worked, and I love it. It’s just like breathing to me at this point.”

The senior has one more weapon to help her: She’s a lefty which, at times, gives her an advantage since most players are used to facing righties.

“When I play someone left-handed, I’m like, this is terrible, but I like it,” she laughed.

Boven said Lizzie Novak brings power to the team.

“Having a star at No 1 singles puts her other teammates in a position to win,” he said. “It gives other opportunities and actually strengthens other flights.

“To have someone who’s basically a guaranteed point really does a great deal for the team.”

Other seniors on the tennis team are Romika Shokohi, Ashley Goding, Adelaide Douglass and Sloane Lohroff;  juniors are Emma Coleman and Madison Pratt. Sophomores are Madison Engel and Kendall Coon, while freshmen are Sienna Watts, Nadia Baird and Emma Pratt.

Mattawan golfBoven said it will be strange not having a Novak on a tennis team next year, but he still has hope.

Talking about trying to convince Matt Novak to play tennis, he said, “Absolutely I did, and I’m still trying to talk him into it. I hear he’s a natural, and tennis is in his blood.

“I love his personality. I think he could bring charisma and some talent to the team. So, yes, on a daily basis I’m trying to talk Matthew into playing tennis.”

That may be wishful hoping on Boven’s part.

Novak is totally focused on golf.

“We made it to Regionals but did not qualify for states last year, and I, sadly, didn't qualify (individually),” he said. “(This year) we’re strong, and we have to work on consistency.

“We definitely have a couple guys who can go low. It just matters if we can do it more than once, shoot a good round and the next day shoot a good round again.”

Pelak has six seniors on varsity: Logan McClish, Andrew Keorkunian, Jared Yetter, Zach Sylvester, Seth Reeves and Brady Weller.

Juniors include Blake Welch and Cameron Graver, and the other sophomore is Eason Haller.

Pelak said Novak possesses the qualities of a top golfer.

“In addition to scoring, which is obviously very important in golf, he plays with tremendous poise. His course management skills are off the chart,” Pelak said.

“He does a good job of not getting too high or low and really manages himself on the course with a lot of poise. He’s not emotional, which is perfect for a golfer.”

With two top athletes usually competing on the same day, the Novaks have come up with a plan.

“My mom (Meredith) usually likes to take the tennis and my dad likes golf,” Matt Novak said. “It gets too stressful watching my sister.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Sister Lizzie and brother Matt Novak are among Mattawan athletes with high aspirations as their sports approach postseason play this spring. (2) From left, Mattawan girls tennis coach Matt Boven, boys golf coach Troy Pelak and golfer Will Kuiper. (3) Lizzie Novak returns a volley during a recent tennis practice. (4) Matt Novak putts during a golf practice. (Boven head shot courtesy of Mattawan’s girls tennis program; all other photos by Pam Shebest.)

Reigning UPD1 Champ Negaunee Setting Pace Again as Finals Approach

By John Vrancic
Special for

September 21, 2023

ESCANABA — The Negaunee Miners have been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for nearly a decade.

Upper PeninsulaNegaunee, 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 VrancicJohn 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.)