Mattawan's Novaks Claim League Titles, Ready to Pursue Next Championship Goals
By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com
May 17, 2022
MATTAWAN — In a family steeped in tennis history, one member is forging his own path.
Matt 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.
If 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.
“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.
Boven 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 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@example.com 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.)
Team of the Month: Negaunee Girls Tennis
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
October 21, 2022
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.
So when coach Kyle Saari says this year’s team stands out among them, that’s actually saying quite a lot.
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.”