KINGSFORD — The Negaunee girls continued their winning ways at Thursday’s Upper Peninsula Division 1 Tennis Finals, earning their fifth straight championship with 15 points.
They were followed by Marquette with 13, Menominee nine, Kingsford eight, Gladstone six and Escanaba with two.
“We knew coming in that Marquette and Menominee would push us,” said Negaunee coach Kyle Saari. “We needed to get a number of our flights into the finals, and we got 6-of-8, which put us in good position. You just have to focus on the job ahead of you once you get in.”
The Miners clinched the title with senior Maci Aho’s 6-4, 6-1 victory over Marquette’s Mollie Kilpela in No. 2 singles.
“I didn’t know our match was going to decide it,” said Aho, who won at No. 4 singles the past two seasons. “I tried not to worry about the team standings and focused on doing my job. I just sprinted to every ball, and Mollie did the same. She’s a very good player. I don’t have a special shot. I just do what I do.”
Negaunee sophomores Morgan Carlson and Katelyn Lammi completed a perfect season (21-0) with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Menominee’s Abbie Anglehart and Meghan Francour in No. 3 doubles for their first title on a sunny and seasonably cool day in Dickinson County.
“I think it went pretty well,” said Lammi. “We didn’t play at our best, but we did well at the net. Winning here for the first time is a pretty big confidence boost.”
Both girls believe Thursday’s championship will be a major motivator going forward.
“We know where our strengths are and what we need to work on,” said Carlson. “I felt we moved around pretty well, which is what our coaches wanted us to do. Only, you have to know when to attack and when to back off.”
The Miners were facing the possibility of rebuilding after graduating seven from last year’s team.
“We’re pretty sophomore heavy, but every girl stepped up,” said Saari. “We just hope to keep it going as long as we can. This has been a fun year in the U.P. Each team presented a different challenge. The most important thing is the girls didn’t get complacent. They were able to stay focused.”
Marquette junior Elysa Olivier won No. 1 singles with a 7-5, 7-6 (7-5) triumph over Gladstone junior Andie Belanger.
“She’s a real good player,” said Olivier, who won at No. 2 singles a year ago. “Andie has gotten so much better since the first time I played her. I was real nervous coming into the finals. There were times when I lost my focus. We both hit some great shots.
“The other players really stay on their game (in No. 1 singles). Next year won’t be a picnic, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’m definitely going to play over the summer.”
Olivier was also happy with how the season went overall.
“ I’m really proud of our team,” she added. “We’re losing a lot of good players and friends, but I’m looking forward to playing with the new girls next year.”
Negaunee, Marquette and Menominee won two flights apiece. Gladstone and Kingsford took one each.
PHOTOS: (Top) Negaunee won its fifth straight MHSAA Finals championship Thursday. (Middle) Marquette’s Elysa Olivier returns a volley on the way to claiming the No. 1 singles title. (Photos by Adam Niemi.)
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.
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.”