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.”
ISHPEMING — There was both a single reason and a singles reason why Iron Mountain won the championship at the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 2 Girls Tennis Finals played at Westwood High School on Thursday.
The difference is subtle — just a single letter “s” — but rings true both ways.
It was easy to see what the Mountaineers’ secret was — sweep the titles at every singles flight while adding one more in doubles just to be on the safe side.
IM finished with 19 points, while Ishpeming outdueled West Iron County in several late finals to eke out second place by one point, 14 to 13.
Gwinn posted five points to take fourth, while Munising had four, Norway one and Ironwood did not score.
Mountaineers coach Marcus Celello credited senior leadership for the team’s repeat championship.
“We have eight seniors on our team, including all four of our regular singles players and both our No. 1 doubles players, along with one each on Nos. 3 and 4 doubles,” the IM coach said.
He noted that all those singles flights were winners with the team’s championship in doubles also coming with the pair of seniors at No. 1.
“We won this last year and returned our core, so I knew we would at least be very competitive this year,” Celello said. “We won or tied every dual meet this season.”
He said that included a 4-4 tie against eventual U.P. Division 1 champion Negaunee to give the Miners the only blemish on their dual-meet record this fall.
“But sometimes when you haven’t faced adversity, it can be scary,” the coach continued. “You don’t always know how you’re going to react.”
No. 2 singles player Aziza Burgoon — of course, a senior — completed an undefeated season by winning a marathon final over WIC’s Seanna Stine, 7-5, 7-5.
IM also got singles titles from No. 3 Natalia Brown and No. 4 Rediet Husing, along with a doubles championship from No. 1 Elle Lofholm and Anja Kleiman.
But the biggest cheers and shrieks came after IM finished its singles sweep when No. 1 Callie Bianco pulled off a 6-4, 6-4 win over Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel.
Schiefel led 4-2 in the second set looking to force a deciding third before Bianco won the final four games.
“I just was trying to stay focused, work the ball and follow through,” Bianco said. “And maybe the most important thing was to be patient, not panic.
“I’m known for being an impatient player. When I’m on, I like to be aggressive, but I know that when I’m not on, I have to focus on being patient.”
Asked if she was “on” Thursday, she was emphatic with her “Yes I was!”
One coach trying to be patient but excited for next season is Ishpeming’s Kaitlin Rich, who watched her junior-laden team set the groundwork for a big season next fall.
“We’ve already made a big improvement from last year,” she said. “I’m proud of how hard our girls have worked to make that improvement.
“Half of our players are dual-sport athletes, which means they’re playing another sport this fall, too, so they really have to balance their workload.”
The Hematites carted off one championship, one of the last finishing finals matches at No. 3 doubles when Kaitlyn VanDeuren and Paige Palomaki had to win a third-set tiebreaker to defeat WIC’s Bailey Hoffart and Aubrey Richardson 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-1).
That result decided the runner-up position team-wise as a Wykons’ win would’ve reversed their point totals and places in the standings.
“We had five finalists, at Nos. 3 and 4 singles and Nos. 1, 2 and 3 doubles,” Rich said. “We return nine of our juniors next year, so I’m really looking forward to next year. I think we should be ready to make a run at the U.P.’s (title) next year.
“Kaitlyn and Paige, those two by far are the most improved players from last year,” the Ishpeming coach added.
WIC veteran coach Joe Serbentas was philosophical after his players won a pair of doubles titles, at No. 2 with sisters Autumn Smith and Kaitlyn Smith and at No. 4 with Destiny Lemery and Olivia Lamay.
“We’ve played well at the U.P.’s the last five or six years, but we also seemed to come up that point short,” he said. “Iron Mountain is so senior-loaded, you just knew that they were the big favorites today.
“We had a 5-7-1 record in dual meets, but we play a lot of the best teams in the U.P., so I still think that’s pretty good.”
Gwinn made a run at a U.P. flight championship for the first time in a number of years with Schiefel at No. 1 singles, much to her coach’s delight.
“She has such a passion for the sport, and she’s such an avid athlete,” Modeltowners coach Darcia Mattson said. “She runs track and is a phenomenal basketball player. She trains at AdvantEdge (athletic training facility in Marquette).
“She used to play tennis against her brother, Jared Rolland.
“And she’s not a big girl at all, but her heart is twice as big as she is.”
PHOTOS (Top) The Iron Mountain and Ishpeming No. 2 doubles pairs face off during a semifinal. (Middle) Anja Kleiman gets a racket on the ball during her and partner Elle Lofholm’s match at No. 1 doubles. (Below) Gwinn’s Miaha Schiefel returns a volley at No. 1 singles. (Photos by Steve Brownlee.)