KINGSFORD — Sending six players into a championship round never hurts a tennis team.
Winning all six flights is even better.
The Negaunee girls made that happen Wednesday, earning their fourth straight Upper Peninsula Division 1 title with 18 points at Kingsford High School.
They were followed by Marquette with 13, Escanaba eight, Menominee six, Gladstone four and Kingsford with three.
“You always want to play your best in the U.P. Finals and putting six in the finals puts you into a pretty good position,” said Negaunee coach Kyle Saari. “Winning all six matches is a by-product of having some depth. We were pushed in some matches. It was good to see the girls respond under pressure.”
The Miners swept doubles, with two flights going to a third set. Skylar and Lexi Taavila turned back Marquette’s Rachel Ely and Carly Sandstrom 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 in No. 2 doubles and Faith Toutant-Jillian Skewis outlasted Marquette’s Sydney Kivi-Campbell Kallio 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 at No. 4.
“Even though we lost the second set in each match, the girls showed some mental toughness by coming through,” said Saari. “They treated it like there was no pressure.”
Abby Nelson and Mykenna Kontio topped Marquette’s Ely Wellner-Kendell Klatt 6-4, 7-5 in No. 1 doubles and Alexis Hill-Kalli Mattson beat Kingsford juniors Sarah Premo-Grace Lorenzoni 6-0, 7-5 at No. 3.
Premo and Lorenzoni led 5-4 in the second set before Nelson and Kontio rallied for the win.
Negaunee’s Lexi Peterson won No. 3 singles 7-5, 6-1 over Menominee’s Jenna Nolde, and Maci Aho downed Marquette’s Molly Kilpela 6-2, 6-3 in No. 4.
“Megan Syrjala is in a unique situation in that she’s part of four U.P. championship teams,” said Saari. “Even though Megan didn’t get to the finals today, she’s a big part of our program. We have a group of seven close-knit seniors. This is a group that will be missed.”
Syrjala reached the semifinals where she dropped a 7-5, 6-2 decision to Escanaba senior Taylor Gauthier.
“Taylor played very good today,” said Syrjala, who will enroll at Northern Michigan University next fall. “She hit a lot of short shots and made me run to the ball. It’s mentally draining to play somebody who’s that consistent.”
Wednesday’s championship also enabled the Miners to complete their second straight perfect season.
“To go undefeated two years in a row shows the depth of our team,” said Syrjala. “It just means so much to be part of four U.P. championship teams. A lot of it is mental toughness. Coach Saari does such a good job teaching us about mental toughness and none of this would be possible without God. I often find myself turning to Him (for guidance).”
Gauthier went on to clinch her third U.P. title with a 6-2, 6-0 triumph over Marquette senior Hannah Swajanen in No. 1 singles.
“I thought I played pretty well today, and the semifinal match was the best I ever played,” said Gauthier. “I especially felt good about how I played in the second set against Megan and felt pretty confident going into the finals. I split with Hannah in the regular season and knew she had a real good shot. I was really surprised by the margin of victory because she beat me pretty good the last time. I was nervous coming in here. It feels great to be a U.P. champion three years in a row.”
In No. 2 singles, Marquette sophomore Elyse Olivier captured her first U.P. title in a 6-3, 6-0 win over Escanaba senior Megan Marenger.
Olivier cruised to a 4-0 lead in the first set. Marenger then made things interesting by taking the next three points.
“(Marenger) is a good player,” said Olivier, who went undefeated this year. “She doesn’t give up, and I think that helped her against Negaunee (in a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory over Jesse Sager). I kind of lost focus, then our coach (Derek Sandstrom) talked to me and helped settle me down.
"Our whole team is very supportive and my dad is my offseason coach. My older brother Alec (two-time U.P. champ) has also helped me out. I couldn’t have done this without them.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Negaunee No. 1 doubles player Mykenna Kontio returns a shot during Wednesday’s Division 1 Finals at Kingsford. (Middle) Escanaba senior Taylor Gauthier volleys on her way to a No. 1 singles championship. (Photos by Adam Niemi.)
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.)