Perseverance Pays for East Grand Rapids

June 3, 2017

By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half

HOLLAND – Refuse to lose would be the perfect theme for this year’s Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals as time after time players came from behind to claim victory.

East Grand Rapids players were involved in many of the comeback wins, and that proved critical in the Pioneers winning their first Finals championship since claiming the Division 3 title in 2009.

East Grand Rapids finished with 31 points to edge second place Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern by three, with Bloomfield Hills Marian placing third with 21 points.

East Grand Rapids knew it would take a total team effort to defeat its longtime local rival, as Northern has won nine MHSAA championships since 2002.

“We know that Northern is always good,” said East Grand Rapids coach Mickey Mikesell. “We’ve known them for a long time. I know their coach and kids very well.

“This title feels real good for my girls. Since we’ve moved up to Division 2 we’ve had some tough luck with injuries and other things, so to get one feels great.”

Strong play in singles fueled East’s drive to the title. East Grand Rapids singles players won three of the four flights including with a pair of come-from-behind wins.

At No. 1 singles, sophomore Sloane Teske battled back from dropping the first set to defeat Mason senior Olivia Hanover 3-6, 6-1, 6-3. Teske knew the road to victory would be a difficult one, as she lost to Hanover in last year’s semifinals.

“I just shrugged off losing that first set and moved on,” Teske said. “(Hanover) played a great match, and she made me work real hard to beat here. I just stayed confident and wanted it more.”

Teske’s win also helped the Pioneers clinch the overall team title.

“I’m so proud of our team and what we’ve done this year,” Teske said. “Everyone worked real hard for this.”

At No. 2 singles, top-seeded East Grand Rapids junior Hannah Stuursma played to form with a 6-0, 6-0 win against Kaitlyn Fox of Forest Hills Central. For Stuursma, her comeback involved battling back from injury. Stuursma battled back from a pair of foot surgeries during her sophomore season to win her first title this spring

“Coming off a foot injury, I was not very confident last year,” Stuursma said. “I was scared of hurting my foot again. This year my confidence level was so much higher. I’m really excited and real proud of how I played. I was pretty nervous, but I kept my confidence up.”

Stuursma’s title was the first of the day for the Pioneers.

“I’m so proud of our team this year,” Stuursma said. “Everyone really stepped up. We won so many big matches here, and I’m so proud of our team.”
Coming from behind was also the story for East Grand Rapids junior Audrey Olson at No. 3 singles. After dropping the first set 2-6 to Sema Colak of Okemos, Olson won the second set 6-2. In the third, Olson found herself trailing four games to one before rallying one more time to claim a 6-4 win and the title.

“This feels real great,” Olson said. “I started out down 2-6, and then I was down 1-4 in the third set. I had great support from my coaches and my teammates, and that made the difference. They told me to dig down deep, and I did.”

At No. 4 singles, Forest Hills Northern senior Felicia Zhang turned in a solid performance to win her second consecutive Finals flight title. Zhang turned back Gigi Kalabat of Bloomfield Hills Marian 6-0, 6-2.

“It’s a real great feeling,” Zhang said. “I wanted to win it most for the team. To win another title my senior year is indescribable.”

Zhang was not the only member of her family to win a championship, as her younger sister, freshman Abby Zhang, was part of Northern’s No. 2 doubles team that claimed a title. Abby Zhang teamed with senior Salonee Marwaha to hold off the East Grand Rapids duo of Annie Meye and Alivia Vencelj 7-5, 6-3.

Being able to win with her younger sister made Felicia Zhang’s title even sweeter.

“She is a freshman, and this was our only chance to play with each other,” Felicia Zhang said. “It feels great.”

That feeling was shared by the younger Zhang. 

“It feels great to win a state title my first time here,” Abby Zhang said. “It was also great to help send Salonee out with a state title in her last high school match.”

The doubles title was the second straight for Marwaha, who was part of Northern’s winning No. 3 doubles team last year. Like last season, Marwaha was paired up with a freshman.

“We didn’t know at the beginning of the season that we would be paired together,” Marwaha said. “At the beginning of the season we started a little sluggish, but we meshed so well together that it didn’t take long for us to get going. Abby did a great job. As a senior, I just told her to keep calm and be patient. She did a great job of that.”

Northern won three of the four doubles flights, and no pair of players displayed a determination to win as strong as Northern’s No. 1 team of Maansi Dalmia and Claire Tatman. Just getting to the finals was an exercise in determination as Dalmia and Tatman outlasted Birmingham Seaholm’s Layla Bellissimo and Emily Hirsch in a semifinals match that lasted more than three hours. In a match that saw two tiebreakers, Dalmia and Tatman came away with a 6-7 (7), 7-5, 7-3 (3) victory.

The semifinal win sent Dalmia and Tatman into the finals, where they went up against top-seeded Yana Beeker and Kristin McLintock of Traverse City Central. The Northern duo had more than enough energy remaining, as they claimed a 6-4, 6-4 win.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Tatman said.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Dalmia added.

The title was a repeat for Tatman who teamed up with Marwaha to win No. 3 doubles last season.

“The semifinal match was super close,” Dalmia said. “It was over three hours and had two tie breakers. We knew we had to dig deep down to pull it off. We just took it one point at a time. I don’t feel that tired now, but I know later I will feel it.”

Refusing to lose was key to the semifinal and final wins for the duo.

“You just have to power through it,” Tatman said. “We practiced hard all season, and we knew in the end that we could do it if we kept powering through.”

Coming from behind was also the theme of the No. 3 doubles match. Nele Geiger and Sydney McLean of Forest Hills Northern rallied for a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win against Lily Trinch and Brooke Forte of Birmingham Seaholm.

The No. 4 doubles title also went three sets. East Grand Rapids’ Audrey DeVries and Kate Mackeigan outlasted the Bloomfield Hills Marian team of Ariano Kotsakis and Catherine Chinonis 6-0, 2-6, 6-4. DeVries and Mackeigan were runners-up at that flight last season.

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PHOTOS: (Top) East Grand Rapids tennis players hoist their MHSAA championship trophy. (Middle) Forest Hills Northern No. 1 doubles players Claire Tatman and Maansi Dalmia pursue a volley Saturday. (Click to see more from

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.”