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.)
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.)