By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Dynasty and dominance too often are used to describe long-term success in sports. And assigning them to shorter-term accomplishments often takes away from teams that might be deserving of such high praise.
The Patriots have won 10 Finals championships during that time, all but one outright. At this season’s MHSAA tournament, Westwood claimed six flight titles and finished runner-up at the other two. And this run was kicked off by another memorable accomplishment a week earlier – the taking back of the Mid-Peninsula Conference title after three straight years finishing runner-up to UPD1 power Negaunee.
The MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for September accomplished all of this under a first-year coach, but hardly a first-year contributor to the program. Sarah Massie was part of four Division 2 titles as a player from 2009-12, then spent summers home from college giving clinics and private lessons to players who now fill her lineup. She watched the success from afar while getting her teaching and coaching start at Kingsford, then returned to her alma mater this fall to take over for mentor Chris Jackson, who remained her assistant and had coached the Patriots to nine of their 14 Finals titles.
“It’s pretty much a continuing of what I already knew and what I knew worked,” Massie said. “I will try different things. But as far as the program in general, I was there as Chris was building it. Whether I was playing in the program or helping out with the program, I was there for the whole process – and that definitely helped.”
A lot goes into Westwood’s annual success. But it’s fair to say it starts with attitude and perspective, which leads to incredible participation.
The program had 37 athletes this fall – which would be 20 percent of the girls in the high school if compared to its 2018-19 enrollment.
“We encourage the girls to come out, but we also have the attitude of tennis is fun,” Massie said. “It's a lifelong sport. It's great to learn it in high school so you can play it forever. The girls that want to get better and want to invest that time, that's what these coaches are here for and we encourage that and we help bring them to their next level.
“That attitude encourages a lot of girls to play. Keeping the numbers up is definitely what helps us be successful every year. We’re competitive with other teams because we’re competitive within our lineup.”
A league title generally ranks a bit lower than something won state or peninsula-wide. But in this case, claiming the MPC title had to come close in significance: Negaunee went on to finish runner-up in UP Division 1 this fall after winning that championship five straight seasons.
Westwood had split with the Miners in a pair of duals leading up to the league tournament Sept. 26.
“We played them our first meet of the year, and you could just tell that it wasn’t (that our team) had gotten beaten by Negaunee every year so they were scared to play them. It was, ‘I want to play them. I want to beat them. I want to play them again,’” Massie said.
“The best part of MPCs was when the day started, we knew we could win and we knew Negaunee could win. So there wasn’t the pressure of ‘we are supposed to win this,’ and also not the downfall of ‘Negaunee should win this.’ We came into the day (saying) we have no idea what’s going to happen, but we know we can win. So let’s just play our best, worry about the things we can control, and see what happens.”
After winning that first match against Negaunee this fall 5-3, the Patriots fell in the rematch by the same score. The two teams played in the championship match at every flight at the league tournament, with Westwood coming out on top 6-2.
That served as a preview of the UPD2 Final a week later, where the Patriots also won six flights and finished runner-up at the other two.
At both the league and Finals tournaments, Madi Koski (No. 1), Tessa Leece (2), Jillian Koski (3) and Jenna Wealton (4) swept singles championships. No. 3 doubles Avery Mariuzza and Emily Nelson also won at both the league and Finals events, while No. 4 Claire Gilles and Natalie Prophet was a Finals champ and No. 2 Elle Miller and Meghan Johnson won at the MPCs. Top doubles pair Katelyn Antilla and Karlie Patron finished runner-up at both tournaments.
No flight finished undefeated this fall, but none suffered more than four losses. Leece was 16-1 and Wealton 18-1 and avenged her only defeat, while Madi and Jillian Koski both finished 16-3. Miller and Johnson at No. 2 doubles finished 17-2, their only losses both to the pair from West Iron County. As a team, Westwood’s only other defeat came to Marquette, the eventual Division 1 champion.
This had been the dream for Massie, who once she decided to go into education knew that returning to Westwood would be her ultimate goal. As an athlete for the Patriots she won No. 2 and No. 4 singles titles and finished runner-up twice at No. 1. Now she’s 1-for-1 leading the program to the top team accomplishment – and with that league title an added bonus on which to build in the future.
“It seems every year we end up with a good group of girls who are fun to coach,” Massie said. “We had five seniors in the varsity lineup, and they were all great kids and fun to be around, and hard workers.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Westwood’s Tessa Leece returns a volley during a No. 2 singles match this season. (Middle) Katelyn Anttila and Karlie Patron serve during a No. 1 doubles match. (Below) The Patriots celebrate their latest Upper Peninsula Division 2 championship. (Photos courtesy of the Westwood girls tennis program.)
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.)