By Scott Keyes
Special for Second Half
MIDLAND – For the Port Huron Northern girls tennis team, winning the Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship at the Midland Community Tennis Center was all about redemption.
Last year, the Huskies tied Clarkston for second place with 25 points as Grosse Pointe South walked away with the title after tallying one more.
Northern came into the tournament believing that this year's magic number was 24.
"I knew if we hit the 24-point mark we would have a shot at winning the state championship," said Northern coach Char Sweeney.
Little did Sweeney know before the tournament got underway Friday that 24 would be the winning number and that her team would be on the winning end of things after the final matches were over Saturday afternoon.
Northern scored 24 points to top Farmington Hills Mercy, which finished second with 22. Grosse Pointe South and Clarkston tied for third with 20. Rounding out the top five was Northville with 14 points.
"We came so close to winning the whole thing a year ago, and we were a determined group coming into the season," Sweeney said. "I would have loved to have won a state championship last season and shared the experience with my older daughter, but to be able to share this with my daughter (Allie) this year along with the rest of the team is pretty special."
The win capped Northern's first championship run since 2002.
Farmington Hills Mercy coach Joe Stafford was all smiles after his team's second-place finish.
"This was probably our highest finish in the last 15 years," Stafford said. "I told the girls even before the tournament started that we play together. We win together. We lose together. Whatever happens after that is up to us. The girls rose to the challenge in the tournament and played their hearts out. I couldn't be prouder of what they accomplished here today."
With five freshmen, three sophomores and only two seniors, Stafford's team should contend for the top spot in the tournament for years to come.
Meanwhile, it was Northern that walked away with a Finals championship, also with a young team that will continue to surge in coming seasons.
Northern won two individual flight titles against Clarkston as Lizzie Brozovich defeated top-seeded Isabella Spindler, 6-2, 6-3, at No. 2 singles, and Fran Basha and Alexis Wirtz defeated top-seeded Paige Olsen and Alex Whall, 6-1, 6-0, in No. 1 doubles.
Brozovich was the only singles winner that wasn't a No. 1 seed in her flight. Mary Hanna of Saline won at No. 1 singles; at No. 3 singles Dana Olsen (Clarkston) defeated Maggie Sweeney (Grosse Pointe South) 6-0, 6-4, and at No. 4 singles Madie Flournoy upended Jessie Guindi, 6-3, 0-6 and 6-2.
Brozovich's win was a game-changer for the Huskies.
"When Lizzie won we knew we could have a shot at winning the whole thing," Sweeney said. "Lizzie was so close to winning a year ago, she came into the tournament knowing what to expect this year. She was so poised an in control.
“This isn't a three-month passion for them. It's a year's worth of hard work and sacrifice. It's a long process to be able to accomplish what the girls did today."
In other doubles matches, Mercy's Anna Hinrichs and Mackenzie Zierau defeated Northern's Jenna Brettschneider and Maddie Neaton, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, at No. 2; Evie VanDewege and Alyssa Roopas of Ann Arbor Pioneer handed Northern's Amy Tseng and Maggie Bacheller their first loss of the season, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, at No. 3; and Northville's Shannon Williams and Libby Quinn bested Mercy's Julie Flanagan and Sarah Hinrichs, 6-2, 6-4, at No. 4.
The No. 2 doubles match lasted more than three hours. Tseng and Bacheller already knew the team had locked up the title after the second set, but still would have liked to have won an individual championship.
"That was by far the longest match we have been in all season," Tseng said. "We would have liked to have won a state championship, but we did it as a team and I couldn't be prouder of what we were able to accomplish as a group."
PHOTO: Port Huron Northern’s Amy Tseng and Maggie Bacheller play a No. 3 doubles match; they finished runners-up in their flight. (Click to see more at HighSchoolsSportsScene.com.)
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.”