By Ryan Stieg
Special for Second Half
NEGAUNEE – The last 12 months have been a roller coaster ride for the Negaunee girls tennis team.
Last fall, the Miners' dynasty in the Upper Peninsula came to an end at the hands of Marquette after collecting five straight Division 1 titles. Then, like every other tennis team in the state, Negaunee wondered if it would even get a chance at reclaiming its championship thanks to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, on Monday, everything fell into place and the Miners climbed back on top of the U.P. with another D1 championship. Negaunee won the Final with 21 points and took five of the eight flight championship matches, leading to a very pleased head coach Kyle Saari.
"I think we're most happy for the girls above anything else," Saari said. "It was a group that went through last year, and they were hungry. But I think it became a learning experience for many of them, and it's a close-knit senior group that I think also made sure to kind of take the juniors underneath their wing too.
"This group, they overcame a lot in spite of the COVID situation, and then they've had a lot thrown at them throughout the course of the year too. You're going to get everybody's best shot. As the year goes on, the more you win, the bigger the target gets. It was nice that they were able to respond on the last day."
Lexi Mason (No. 3) and Annika Tervo (No. 4) gave the Miners two singles wins, and Negaunee also took three of the four doubles finals. Saari praised Mason, who finished off an impressive undefeated season, along with his No. 1 doubles team.
"Lexi ended up finishing the season off 19-0, and it's a really quiet 19-0," Saari said. "And it shouldn't be because she truly just lets her game kind of talk for her. She doesn't say much; she's quiet. So I'm tremendously proud of her and the effort she put forth.
“The other unique one is Morgan Carlson and Katelyn Lammi at one doubles. They went through all three of their years undefeated as a doubles team. They're good friends, and they're both good athletes. For them to end their careers 19-0 this year too, it's a unique mark to hit."
Menominee finished second with 14 points at what was supposed to be a seven-team meet, but Escanaba didn't compete. Jenna Nolde (No. 1 singles) and Josie Hofer (No. 2) provided the Maroons' two individual championships.
"I'm proud of my girls," Menominee head coach Nikki Mathieu said. "My one and two singles, they busted their butts this year and they did awesome. I'm proud of them. They're great."
Westwood, which moved up a division after notching four straight Division 2 titles, was third with 10 points. Its lone championship came at No. 4 doubles.
Marquette (eight points), Gladstone (one) and Kingsford rounded out the standings.
PHOTOS: Negaunee’s Lexi Mason returns a volley during the No. 3 singles championship match Monday. (Middle) Menominee’s Josie Hofer serves during her title-clinching win at No. 2 singles. (Photos by Ryan Stieg.)
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.)