Miss Tennis Serving Now as 'Hero Coach'

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

July 17, 2020

PORTAGE — One high school match continues to stick out for Kathleen Hawkins. She played it not as a senior, but as a sophomore, and not to win one of her three MHSAA Finals championships for Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Central, but just to get a chance to claim the first.  

Seeded fifth at No. 1 singles at the 2008 Lower Peninsula Division 4 tournament, Hawkins won her semifinal over top seed Rachel Denny, from Bloomfield Hills Academy of the Sacred Heart, 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-6 (4).

Hawkins then won the title, defeating second seed Adrienne DiVito, of Madison Heights Bishop Foley, 6-1.6-0.

“(The semi) felt like a final,” Hawkins said recently, a big smile on her face as she remembered. “It

was crazy. It was a great match. Both teams were cheering super loud.

“It was intense but so much fun. Then Rachel Denny and I became teammates at Western (Michigan University), which is the funny part.”

Hawkins said she will never forget the excitement.

“I think that was the most anticipated match of the weekend,” she said. “It was awesome.

“I haven’t played very many matches where there was so much going on and so many people cheering. It was great.”

Two years later, and now a decade ago, Hawkins graduated from Hackett with two more championships and the Michigan Miss Tennis title.

These days, Hawkins is back where her tennis career started: the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo, where she teaches aspiring young players hoping to follow in her footsteps.

She began lessons at age 9, working with Maurice Palmer for nine years at the Maple Street Y, before she headed off to college.

Three years ago, she returned to the Y as the junior tennis coordinator at the Portage branch, working with youth ages 3 to 18.

Returning as a coach was a no-brainer for the personable Hawkins.

“Kat went through the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo tennis program as a youth player, excelling herself to the top collegiate level,” said Erik Anderson, Association Tennis Director. “She is a direct representation of achievement and success for youth tennis players.”

He added that Hawkins has developed into an elite adult player that people look up and want to learn from.

“There is a spot for everyone at any age and any level of tennis in our programs, and Kat finds the right spot for our youth to get in the sport, enjoy the sport, and excel at the sport,” he said.

One of those students is Ellie Skwiat, a rising junior on Hackett Catholic Prep’s tennis team. (The school changed its name in 2014.)

“She’s amazing,” Skwiat said of Hawkins. “She’s my hero coach, and I’ve only been hitting with her for a year.

“She helps me stay consistent and focus on the game more mentally instead of physically.”

Hawkins said she has incorporated the lessons she learned from Palmer while working with today’s young athletes.

“He was much more than just a tennis coach for me,” she said. “He was somebody I could go to, somebody I could talk to about anything.

“He was somebody who pushed me to be the very best, not just on the tennis court, but off the court, too. I think that’s super important.”

She said she hopes to instill those same values in her students.

“Confidence in every aspect of their lives,” she said. “I’m not just a tennis coach, I’m a life coach.”

Although 10 years have passed since her high school years, she remembers it all and keeps in touch with those teammates.

“I’m one of those types of people that really remember fierce competition,” she said. “I remember states every year. It was an exciting time of my life, probably the peak of my tennis career.”

After claiming that first championship at No. 1 singles in 2008, Hawkins went on to win Finals titles at No. 2 singles in 2009 and again at No. 1 singles in 2010.

Earning the Michigan Miss Tennis Award was the perfect end to her high school career.

“That was something I always wanted, something I always strove for,” she said. “I used to read the paper when I was younger and see ‘Mr. Basketball,’ ‘Mr. Baseball’ and rarely saw ‘Miss’ except ‘Miss Volleyball.’

“I don’t think I found out I got that award until July 8, my birthday. It was the best birthday present I think I ever received. It still holds a place in my heart.”

Making the transition from high school to college was an eye-opener, she said.

“When I was in high school, I was kinda starting to hit the peak of my game at the end of my career,” she said. “I didn’t even know there was so much further I could go.

“I had no clue, but I was willing to do the work. I was willing to trust my coaches and have complete faith in my coaches. That’s why it worked so well for me.”

While at WMU, Hawkins had an Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranking of 55, making her the first Bronco to break into the top 60.

After graduating with a degree in recreation and minor in business, Hawkins left tennis for a job in marketing with Wyndham Vacation Rentals in Colorado, but returned to Michigan in 2016.

The current pandemic put a stop to her coaching for three months, but not her interaction with the community.

“As a department in Portage, under the whole Y umbrella, the tennis department and the aquatics department teamed up to help deliver meals to low-income communities,” Hawkins said. 

“It was nice to do in the midst of all this happening to think about other people. It felt good to do; it felt right.”

As for the future: “I haven’t thought that far,” she said. “Honestly, I just had a child so my ultimate goal is to be a great mom and to catch up on my sleep. 

“I’m looking forward to continuing here at the Y.”

Hawkins married Evan Olsen, her high school sweetheart, and they have an 11-month-old son, Hendrix.

As far as her son playing tennis, “I hope so,” she said.

“I’m not a pushy parent. I’m happy he’s healthy; that’s all I can ask for.”

Made in Michigan 2020

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June 16: Muskegon Grad Casts "Magic" in HBO Series - Read

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 pamkzoo@aol.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kathleen Hawkins, second from left, employs social distancing while teaching students recently at the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo. (2) Hawkins, playing for Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Central, earned the Miss Tennis Award as a senior. (3) Hawkins continues as an elite adult player while also teaching the next generation. (4) Hawkins, left, and Kalamazoo Hackett Prep student Ellie Skwiat. (Hawkins' high school photo courtesy of Kathleen Hawkins; all others by Pam Shebest.)

Senior-Dominated Iron Mountain Soars to UPD2 Finals Repeat

By Steve Brownlee
Special for MHSAA.com

September 30, 2022

ISHPEMING — There was both a single reason and a singles reason why Iron Mountain won the championship at the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 2 Girls Tennis Finals played at Westwood High School on Thursday.

The difference is subtle — just a single letter “s” — but rings true both ways.

It was easy to see what the Mountaineers’ secret was — sweep the titles at every singles flight while adding one more in doubles just to be on the safe side.

IM finished with 19 points, while Ishpeming outdueled West Iron County in several late finals to eke out second place by one point, 14 to 13.

Gwinn posted five points to take fourth, while Munising had four, Norway one and Ironwood did not score.

Mountaineers coach Marcus Celello credited senior leadership for the team’s repeat championship.

“We have eight seniors on our team, including all four of our regular singles players and both our No. 1 doubles players, along with one each on Nos. 3 and 4 doubles,” the IM coach said.

He noted that all those singles flights were winners with the team’s championship in doubles also coming with the pair of seniors at No. 1.

“We won this last year and returned our core, so I knew we would at least be very competitive this year,” Celello said. “We won or tied every dual meet this season.”

He said that included a 4-4 tie against eventual U.P. Division 1 champion Negaunee to give the Miners the only blemish on their dual-meet record this fall.

“But sometimes when you haven’t faced adversity, it can be scary,” the coach continued. “You don’t always know how you’re going to react.”

The Iron Mountain and Ishpeming No. 2 doubles pairs face off during a semifinal. No. 2 singles player Aziza Burgoon — of course, a senior — completed an undefeated season by winning a marathon final over WIC’s Seanna Stine,  7-5, 7-5.

IM also got singles titles from No. 3 Natalia Brown and No. 4 Rediet Husing, along with a doubles championship from No. 1 Elle Lofholm and Anja Kleiman.

But the biggest cheers and shrieks came after IM finished its singles sweep when No. 1 Callie Bianco pulled off a 6-4, 6-4 win over Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel.

Schiefel led 4-2 in the second set looking to force a deciding third before Bianco won the final four games.

“I just was trying to stay focused, work the ball and follow through,” Bianco said. “And maybe the most important thing was to be patient, not panic.

“I’m known for being an impatient player. When I’m on, I like to be aggressive, but I know that when I’m not on, I have to focus on being patient.”

Asked if she was “on” Thursday, she was emphatic with her “Yes I was!”

One coach trying to be patient but excited for next season is Ishpeming’s Kaitlin Rich, who watched her junior-laden team set the groundwork for a big season next fall.

“We’ve already made a big improvement from last year,” she said. “I’m proud of how hard our girls have worked to make that improvement.

“Half of our players are dual-sport athletes, which means they’re playing another sport this fall, too, so they really have to balance their workload.”

The Hematites carted off one championship, one of the last finishing finals matches at No. 3 doubles when Kaitlyn VanDeuren and Paige Palomaki had to win a third-set tiebreaker to defeat WIC’s Bailey Hoffart and Aubrey Richardson 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-1).

That result decided the runner-up position team-wise as a Wykons’ win would’ve reversed their point totals and places in the standings.

“We had five finalists, at Nos. 3 and 4 singles and Nos. 1, 2 and 3 doubles,” Rich said. “We return nine of our juniors next year, so I’m really looking forward to next year. I think we should be ready to make a run at the U.P.’s (title) next year.

“Kaitlyn and Paige, those two by far are the most improved players from last year,” the Ishpeming coach added.

Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel returns a volley at No. 1 singles. WIC veteran coach Joe Serbentas was philosophical after his players won a pair of doubles titles, at No. 2 with sisters Autumn Smith and Kaitlyn Smith and at No. 4 with Destiny Lemery and Olivia Lamay.

“We’ve played well at the U.P.’s the last five or six years, but we also seemed to come up that point short,” he said. “Iron Mountain is so senior-loaded, you just knew that they were the big favorites today.

“We had a 5-7-1 record in dual meets, but we play a lot of the best teams in the U.P., so I still think that’s pretty good.”

Gwinn made a run at a U.P. flight championship for the first time in a number of years with Schiefel at No. 1 singles, much to her coach’s delight.

“She has such a passion for the sport, and she’s such an avid athlete,” Modeltowners coach Darcia Mattson said. “She runs track and is a phenomenal basketball player. She trains at AdvantEdge (athletic training facility in Marquette).

“She used to play tennis against her brother, Jared Rolland.

“And she’s not a big girl at all, but her heart is twice as big as she is.”

PHOTOS (Top) The Iron Mountain and Ishpeming No. 2 doubles pairs face off during a semifinal. (Middle) Anja Kleiman gets a racket on the ball during her and partner Elle Lofholm’s match at No. 1 doubles. (Below) Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel returns a volley at No. 1 singles. (Photos by Steve Brownlee.)