By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Birmingham Seaholm’s MHSAA Division 2 championship Saturday was the “terminus in the odyssey of our souls,” as coach Scott Ransome described it at the team’s banquet earlier this week.
In other words, it was quite a trip – punctuated by the team’s first title since 2004. And put in those words, it was a classic.
Seaholm placed seven flights into semifinals, and despite only one individual champion scored 27 points – two more than runner-up Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern, which had won or shared the last six Division 2 titles. Seaholm finished second to FHN in 2011.
“I don't think, player for player, we were as strong as we were three years ago (when the Maples finished fourth). I thought three years ago we had the make-up, the players with the skill set (to win)," Ransome said. "But these players, whatever they lacked in skill set, they certainly made up for in desire. They were hungry.”
The Maples receive this week’s Second Half team High 5 for how they won almost as much as winning itself. Sophomore Jackie Meier and freshman Rachel Wilson teamed to win the No. 3 doubles championship – playing to their top seed in that flight. But six other flights also played at or above their seeds.
It was a gratifying end to a two-month stretch that saw the Maples start with high expectations after finishing seven points behind FHN at the 2011 Final. They dominated in early competition, but then were dealt a sad blow when junior Nancy Benda – a second seed at No. 1 singles last season – was lost for seven weeks with a stress fracture.
Ransome and assistant coach Paul Young took an approach of emphasizing interchangeable parts – “We said, ‘Let's not fixate on Nancy. She’s an integral part of the program, but she in herself is not the entire program,’” Ransome told his team – and after playing a few matches defaulting at No. 1 singles, moved everyone up a flight and finished 13-1 without her in the lineup.
Meanwhile, Ransome and Young prepared their healthy players to be strong at the end. The Maples regularly do ladder drills and other agility work for 45 minutes at the start of practice before taking their first hits of the day. And the team’s No. 5 and 6 doubles teams continued to push those ahead of them to help them get stronger.
“It was almost like when Nancy returned, those girls were able to catch a breathe,” Ransome said. “They were able to get some rejuvenation in going back to their rightful positions.”
Seaholm tied with eventual MHSAA Division 1 runner-up Clarkston for the Oakland Activities Association Red championship, then finished runner-up to Bloomfield Hills Marian at the Regional. But with the benefits of season-long preparation for a final run, plus improved skills Ransome and Young saw across the lineup, the Maples had one more effort left – a championship effort, it turned out.
Sophomore Labina Petrovska advanced to the final match at No. 2 singles, as did sophomore Lauren Frazier at No. 3 and freshman Claire Markley at No. 4. Petrovska and Markley were second seeds, and Frazier was a third.
Senior Katie Root and junior Lauren Benderoff made the semifinals at No. 4 doubles as a fifth seed. And Benda won a match at No. 1 singles despite coming in unseeded.
“It was gratifying more than anything else. That’s the only way I can describe it,” Ransome said. “For what we had, for us to have enough balance in the lineup. And it really did take some help (from opponents winning other matches). We played to our seeds, and that’s what this was really all about.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Jackie Meier (center) and Rachel Wilson (right) won Birmingham Seaholm's lone individual championship, at No. 3 doubles, at Saturday's Division 2 Final. (Middle) No. 1 singles player Nancy Benda hoists the Maples' team championship trophy. (Bottom) Sophomore Lauren Frazier was one of three Seaholm singles players to advance to the final of their flights, she at No. 3 singles. (Photos courtesy of Anne Benda.)
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.”