KALAMAZOO — A year ago, Charlie Kuchman and Sofia Manzo could not crack Birmingham Seaholm’s varsity lineup.
On Saturday, the duo’s three-set win at No. 4 doubles clinched the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 tennis team title for Seaholm, its first since 2015.
The Maples finished with 34 points, followed by Bloomfield Hills Marian with 27 and East Grand Rapids with 26.
“To win all four doubles says a lot,” Seaholm coach Casey Cullen said. “Five flight championships. Even where we lost, we fought hard.”
For the third-year coach, who played high school tennis at Seaholm, the title is extra special.
“In high school, I never won a team championship,” he said, adding, “I played at Western Michigan (University) so this is my backyard. It was meant to be.”
He said the team knew it had a chance at the title.
“They knew they had a good team; we knew we were something special,” he said. “The rankings would come out and they are No. 1 and they’re like, ‘Man, now we have a target on our back.’
“But they handled that really well. They continued to get better every day, and this is the result.”
Although Seaholm won five flights, the Maples did not have a player in the No. 1 singles final.
That individual title went to reigning champ Sloane Teske of East Grand Rapids, who defeated freshman Olivia Weiss of Royal Oak, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, in the final.
Teske’s first lead of the match was at 5-4 in the second set.
“I just had a moment of realization and I looked around with all my family and friends supporting me,” the top-seeded junior said. “I just thought whatever happens, happens.
“I know they’ll support me and love me no matter what if I win or lose.”
Weiss, the second seed, was coming off another tough three-setter in the semifinal, with a hard-fought 1-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3) win over Holly’s third-seeded Taylor Barrett.
Weiss qualified for the Finals but her Royal Oak team did not, leading her to figure she would not be seeded at all, let alone second.
“We’re in a little lower flight in our region,” she said. “Our team works really hard and really good, but we just happen to be at a lower flight, and I didn’t think I’d be seeded at all.
“To be in the first singles seeds is an accomplishment in itself.”
Top-seeded Nicole Johnson of Holly ended her senior year with a 6-4, 6-4, win at No. 2 singles over Seaholm freshman Sofia Gryzenia, the second seed.
“This was my biggest goal for a long time,” said Johnson, who lost in the semifinals last year at the same flight.
“Being a senior didn’t matter. I have experience but she’s a very, very good player. I couldn’t have done it without (my team’s) support cheering me on.”
Gryzenia lost to Johnson earlier in the season.
“I think it makes me a little more nervous because I already think sometimes that I’m going to lose,” the freshman said.
“I think I just needed to keep more balls in against her because she has a really good backhand, so I tried to hit it to her forehand.”
At No. 3 singles, a pair of sophomores went against each other with second-seeded Halley Elliott of East Grand Rapids defeating fifth-seeded Marlo Hudson of Marian, 7-6 (5), 6-1.
Hudson upset top-seeded Mollie Judge, from Seaholm, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4, in the semifinal, a match watched by Elliott.
“They both played such a great match,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t expecting an easy match, but we both gave it our all.”
Although Elliott defeated Hudson earlier in the season, “definitely going into the tournament, I had a little more confidence, but when I saw her play Seaholm, she played so well, I definitely had to adjust my plan a little bit,” Elliott said.
At No. 4 singles, another pair of sophomores faced each other with a very animated Greta Albertie, also of Seaholm, defeating top seed Yana Semerly of Okemos, 6-1, 6-1.
“Last year, I lost in quarterfinals to my best friend (Marian’s Gigi Kalabat),” Albertie said. “I realized that you have to cheer for yourself. You are out on the court alone. You really have to support yourself, and that just really pushed me to win.”
Albertie not only had the crowd with her (“I’ve had like eight different teams cheering for me. I make friends with everyone,” she added) but the second seed was a dynamo on the court with fist pumps toward the crowd.
“Every single time I won a point, I screamed, ‘Yeah’ like that,” she said. “This was states, and I kinda just really stepped that up.”
While Albertie cheered for herself, she said her mother will not allow her to cheer for her twin sister — who plays No. 4 doubles for Marian.
“Me and my sister are close at home, but I just wanted to try something new and be different,” Emma Albertie said of choosing the all-girls school.
“She always tries to ask me ‘What are your weaknesses?’ And I’m like, ‘Ah, I’m not telling you.’ I try to ask her and she says ‘I’m not telling you.’”
As for the cheering, “My mom does not let me cheer for my sister,” Greta Albertie said. “I can’t be down there. It’s that serious. Whenever I cheer for the other team, my sister will start losing really bad.
“I got like grounded because I did that. It was terrible.”
Kuchman and Manzo were stunned to learn they had the team title-winning match.
“This whole team depends on each other, and it’s going to fall to somebody, and we really wanted to make the lineup this year and we made it,” Kuchman said. “We’re really happy. It was worth it. All our hard work paid off.”
The top seeds defeated Marian’s second seeds, sophomore Emma Albertie and freshman Kathryn Torak, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4.
Kuchman, a sophomore, said their mindset heading into the third set was “it’s just like have fun because, honestly, nothing’s worth it if you can’t have fun. It’s the whole reason why I do tennis.
“I was trying to play to win before and it wasn’t working, but when I didn’t worry about it and tried to have fun, it was better,” Manzo said
The pair trailed 0-3 in the third set before turning things around.
“It was kind of hard,” said Manzo, a junior. “They were playing really well, and we were trying to figure out what to do differently because it’s hard when you’re in the finals and you’re down 0-3.
“I just looked at Charlie and said, ‘We have to get this.’
“We worked so hard for it. I think it’s more in your head, and our heads were in the right place.”
Cullen did not know at the time that his team had clinched the title but was not too surprised that Kuchman and Manzo did it.
“To win in their first year in the lineup says a lot about how hard they worked,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a team effort.
“They’ve been playing really well lately. They beat Midland Dow, which was undefeated, in the last week. So they were playing well at the right time.
“I was probably hardest on them because they had the most to learn being in the lineup. They totally took it and ran with it. It’s just awesome to see.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Birmingham Seaholm’s Greta Albertie volleys while helping her team to an MHSAA title Saturday. (Middle) East Grand Rapids’ Sloane Teske rockets a return during her repeat run at No. 1 singles. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)