Negaunee, Gauthier Dominate D1 Finals

By John Vrancic
Special for

September 28, 2017

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.”

Click for full results.

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.)

Team of the Month: Negaunee Girls Tennis

By Geoff Kimmerly 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.”