By Ryan Stieg
Special for Second Half
ISHPEMING – The last two seasons, Ishpeming Westwood and Iron River West Iron County have emerged as the top Division 2 girls tennis programs in the Upper Peninsula – and whenever they battle, it’s always a close finish.
It couldn't get much closer Thursday, as the Patriots edged the Wykons 20-19 to win their third straight U.P. Division 2 title and their ninth in the last 10 years. This also was the second year in a row Westwood beat West Iron by one point.
Not only did the two squads have to battle each other in competition, they also had to fight the elements as a cold wind blew across the court for most of the day. Westwood coach Chris Jackson said he wasn’t sure how the day would play out, especially with the weather, but that it ended up going as expected.
“Everything from the weather to the competition with West Iron, we knew that was going to be difficult,” he said. “We weren’t sure how the weather conditions were going to affect things, but everything kind of played out the way that the seeds went. It was almost like the tournament went as scheduled with the exception of maybe one flight.
“Our girls responded and they were just amazing today. We had our ups and downs, and we were down in a couple of matches and in the first sets of some finals. But a couple of the kids responded well and that was the difference today.”
While the Patriots celebrated, it was another excruciating way to end the year for the Wykons. However, West Iron coach Joe Serbentas viewed the result from a positive standpoint and said he was proud of how his team performed.
“It’s always a close one with Westwood,” he said. “They’re a good program, they’re solid, and we knew coming in that it was going to come down to a few flights here and there at the end like it did last year. … They got five championships and we got three, so that was the difference today. But I can’t take anything away from our girls. I thought we fought really hard, and the ones we lost (were) a couple of three-setters. It was a tough way to go out because it’s competitive and I’m sure the girls are disappointed, but it’ll make them hungry, the ones that are coming back next year.
“I thought Katarina (Serbentas) has done great all year, and she was excellent today (she defeated Westwood’s Madi Koski at No. 1 singles). That win puts her record at 20-2, which is a very good year. We did everything we could. Westwood was just a little better today.”
What helped put the Patriots over the top was their singles play, as they took three of the four flight championships. Westwood’s Jillian Koski took the No. 4 match in two sets, while Kaylee Larmour (No. 3) outlasted West Iron’s Livea Mazurek in three frames. The most competitive singles match was at the No. 2 spot, where the Patriots’ Tessa Leece defeated the Wykons’ Izzy Hoogenboom in three sets. After losing the first set, Leece said she was a little concerned, but a chat with Jackson helped calm her nerves.
“I was pretty confident, but after the first set, I was really, really nervous that it was not going to happen,” she said. “But then my coach gave me a really nice pep talk that was very motivational, and it boosted me up. Then I decided that I wanted to win this, so then I was just determined to do it.”
When asked about what he said to Leece, Jackson replied that he told her to focus on what she could control and not on what she couldn’t.
“It’s the same as in any other sport,” he said. “Tessa has come a long way in her game, and the difficult thing for her is in the past she’s relied on her ability to just get a lot of balls back. I think sometimes she fights between ‘do I hit harder?’ or ‘do I try to get balls back?’ I think she was fighting herself a little bit there in the first set and the beginning of the second, but I think she settled on the style she wanted to play and she committed to it and got a good result.”
Over on the doubles side, Iron Mountain, which finished third overall, had its only championship match appearance at the No. 1 spot. However, Saylor Swartout and Claire Montgrain couldn’t top West Iron’s Eden Golliher and Tori Bociek. The other three matches were between the Wykons and the Patriots with West Iron’s Emily Nelson and Anna Malmquist taking the No. 2 match in a three-set thriller. However, Westwood’s Ellie Miller and Meghan Johnson took the No. 3 title and teammates Jenna Wealton and Claire Giles defeated the Wykons’ Aurora Dahl and Madison Berutti at No. 4 to add to the title drive.
Ishpeming took fourth with six points and reached the semifinals in four flights. Munising finished fifth with three points, with Chantelle Harger (No. 3 singles) having the Mustangs’ best individual performance as she made the semifinals. Ironwood followed in sixth place and Gwinn in seventh. The Red Devils had one semifinals appearance with McKensi Koval and Leilah Anderson making it at No. 4 doubles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Westwood’s Ellie Miller serves during a semifinals doubles match against Munising’s Skyler Campbell and Lori Mattson at the Upper Peninsula Division 2 Finals. (Middle) The Patriots' Meghan Johnson also serves against Campbell and Mattson. (Photos by Corey Kelly.)
ESCANABA — The Negaunee Miners have been the measuring stick in Upper Peninsula girls tennis for nearly a decade.
Negaunee, which came into this season as reigning Division 1 champion, has taken the U.P. crown seven of the past nine years. Ishpeming Westwood took the title in 2021.
Negaunee is 11-0-1 after a win over Gwinn on Tuesday. The tie came last week against Escanaba.
"We knew we were going to have a target on our backs," said Miners coach Kyle Saari. "We told the girls they have to be ready for every meet. The target is pretty huge, and I think we were sluggish out of the gate. I don't think we finished particularly well at the net. I think our tradition helps us for sure, although it can be a double-edged sword. We want to keep striving to reach benchmarks and make sure we don't get lackadaisical."
Sophomore Liliana Saunders is 12-0 at No. 2 singles. She was the UPD1 No. 4 single champion as a freshman.
"I'm starting to play my game," Saunders said after her 6-0, 6-1 victory over Escanaba’s Molly VanDamme. "I think I'm controlling the ball pretty well, but I need to work on my net play and improve my serving a little.
“Overall, we have a real strong team. We're pretty close-knit and play a lot over the summer. I think our tradition gives us a lot of confidence going into matches."
Saunders' summer work included a trip in early August to Escanaba, where she earned the age 16-18 title in the 76th Annual Michigan-Wisconsin Open with a 7-5, 6-0 victory over Escanaba senior Sophia Derkos.
"I think that really helped me," she said. "She's really a good player. My toughest match this season was against the Westwood girl (sophomore Samantha Ruby). The Gladstone girl (Addy Trombley) is also pretty good."
Derkos – last season’s UPD1 No. 1 singles champion – remained undefeated in five matches after taking a 6-0, 6-1 decision from Negaunee junior Aubrey Johnson at No. 1 singles last week.
"She's a good player, and they're a good team," Derkos said after the match. "This is a big win. I've been waiting to play them and Westwood. Those are the two toughest teams. This is a big confidence boost."
Johnson, last season’s UPD1 runner-up at No. 2 singles, bounced back with a 6-1, 6-1 triumph over Munising's Bailey Corcoran on Thursday and also won Tuesday, and gave Derkos her due after the Escanaba match.
"Sophia knows what she wants to do," said Johnson. "She plays at a pretty fast pace, and I didn't get to the net as much as I'd like. She's very patient. You can tell she's an experienced player. I can learn from playing against her."
The Miners, as they did in singles, split their four matches with Escanaba in doubles.
Seniors Sage Juntti and Olivia Lumseth are the reigning UPD1 champs at No. 2 doubles, and Kallen Schultz was part of the No. 3 champion last season and is playing No. 1 this fall with Madison Frustaglio, who was part of the 2022 runner-up at their flight.
“We have a very good coach. He always challenges us, so we can get better,” Juntti said. “We do our usual stuff. If it's not good, he just makes us work on it until it is good."
Except for the Escanaba tie and a 5-3 triumph over Westwood, all of the Miners' victories have been shutouts (8-0).
"The biggest part of our success is the girls are supportive of each other," Saari said. "They're all quality kids."
Negaunee's success also has made Escanaba coach Chris Ogren take notice.
"Kyle has been there a long time," he said. "They have one of the most athletic teams, and they're very disciplined. You always have to be ready when you play them.
“We have some good teams up here. You always have to be mentally prepared."
Negaunee hosts Gwinn, Menominee and Marquette before also hosting the Mid-Peninsula Conference tournament Sept. 27.
The U.P. Division 1 Finals will take place Oct. 4 in Marquette.
John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
PHOTO Negaunee’s Aubrey Johnson serves during her match against Escanaba’s Sophia Derkos on Sept. 13. (Photo by Mitch Vosburg/Escanaba Daily Press.)