By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA — Elyse Olivier has come full circle in her love for tennis.
The Marquette High School junior has been playing since eighth grade, but as part of a huge tennis family she was not into the sport until the past couple of years.
“I was never pressured to play,” she said after sweeping a pair of 6-0 decisions recently at a match at Escanaba High School. “It was always an option.”
Her dad, Wayne, is a long-time accomplished tennis fanatic. Her brother Alec, a Marquette senior, is unbeaten in three seasons with the Redmen. She also has two younger brothers.
Tennis has become a passion for Olivier, who said she didn’t like watching it just a couple of years ago. Last year she played No. 2 singles; this year she is unbeaten at No. 1.
“I just wanted to be good enough to make the varsity,” she said of her first foray into competitive tennis. To accomplish that she attended some tennis clinics and spent extensive time practicing.
“I did a lot of hitting with my dad,” she said. “He is my main coach out of season.”
Derek Sandstrom, the Marquette girls coach, said she is becoming more comfortable playing the game.
“When she is on, it is fun to watch,” he said. “It is a matter of getting her to keep things even. Sometimes she is nonchalant, and sometimes she tries to hit shots she is capable of hitting but the situation doesn’t call for it.
“She has a real nice all-around game.”
Ground strokes are her strong point, which is why she prefers to lay back and hit from the baseline rather than charging the net in an attacking mode. “I’m not afraid to come up to the net. I try to be ready for anything,” she said.
There are times when the game can be frustrating “because you are playing by yourself. It is you, you and you.” She said the mental and physical aspects can also be frustrating.
Olivier is not expressive on the court, simply chasing after everything and returning shots with solid strokes. “I do talk to myself a little bit,” she said, indicating she does not want to draw attention for any antics or disrupt the other matches.
“It can be really hard out there by yourself,” she said, showing she will clench her fist after completing a successful volley. “I don’t like to yell. I don’t want to obstruct other people on the court,” she said.
After getting her shutout at Escanaba on a windy, sun-baked afternoon, Olivier said she just tries to focus on the ball and her shot and ignore everything else. “I try not to let the wind affect me,” she said as it blew the hair around on her head.
Her love of the game is obvious as she goes about her business, then when she’s done she merely leaves the court, grabs her cellphone and talks to family and friends while walking around the court as the other matches continue.
“I am passionate about tennis. I love to be out here. I always want to play,” she said.
She has played against her brother Alec, but said “it did not go well for me. He is a lot better than me.” She also plays with her brother Nick, a Marquette freshman netter. “I can still beat him, but I don’t know for how long,” she admitted.
Olivier is hoping to get a chance to play tennis in college, then stay involved in tennis as part of a women’s group or perhaps move into coaching.
She loves the challenge of tennis, whether in matches or just hitting balls. “I am always learning about it. I am always improving. I love that,” she said.
She also enjoys playing a variety of opponents because each one provides a new and many times different challenge and style. Meanwhile she tries to improve her footwork, mobility and shot-making skills while enjoying being a part of a team.
“I’ve met so many people through tennis,” she said, indicating No. 2 player Mollie Kilpela is her best friend and they hit a lot of balls together. “We are all so different, but we do have that one thing going to tennis. It is nice to have that.
“I’m pretty simple in my life. Basically, I like tennis. I like it that way.”
Olivier does go beyond tennis, indicating she likes to bike, draw, write about her daily life and sing. She also works at Marquette Pediatrics and thinks she may enter the dentistry field.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette’s Elyse Olivier prepares to return a volley; she’s playing No. 1 singles this fall. (Middle) Olivier, undefeated this season, lines up a backhand. (Photos courtesy of the Marquette athletic department).
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.)