Work Pays Off as Country Day Rises to Extend Title Streak

By Jarred Chrapek
Special for Second Half

June 5, 2021

HOLLAND –The Detroit Country Day girls tennis team won its fifth straight Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals title Saturday at Holland Christian High School – but keeping the streak going was anything but easy as Country Day overcame several hurdles along the way.

“We came in as a major underdog,” said Yellowjackets coach Jessica Stencel. “We went through a lot of adversity to win this championship. We lost to Cranbrook 7-1 in a dual this season, we lost at the Regional, and we’ve had kids out of the lineup due to injuries and COVID.

“But these kids have practiced hard, and they are super close as a team.”

Country Day needed every player to come through, and the total team effort was the difference in holding off second-place Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood. Hours upon hours of practice throughout the season paid off in a big way for the Yellowjackets.

“This team worked so hard, and it showed today,” Stencel said. “The amount of hours these kids put in this season was incredible. They would hit balls after practice. They would practice after matches. They would practice on Saturdays and Sundays. They put in so many hours to get here.”

Along with a team loaded with hard workers, Country Day also relied on one of the premier singles players in the state. Senior Julia Fliegner, who will be playing her collegiate tennis at the University of Michigan, won the No. 1 singles championship.

Grand Rapids Christian tennisFor Fliegner, the state title was her second in as many trips to the Finals with her first coming during her freshman year. As a sophomore, Fliegner did not play high school tennis, and COVID-19 led to the cancellation of last season.

“Winning the singles title feels pretty good,” Fliegner said, “but I wanted to win the title as a team very badly. I just wanted to do my part for the team and be a leader. I was in a position this year to be a team leader, and I was happy to be able to help lead.”

Junior Charlotte Brown led the way for second-place Cranbrook Kingswood. She won her second individual Finals championship, claiming the title at No. 2 singles.

“This is really special,” Brown said. “I was really nervous, but the match went really well. The wind was very difficult out there, but once I figured that out things went good.”

For the Chelsea tennis team, the number three proved to be the lucky number of the weekend. Not only did Chelsea finish in a program-best third place, but the Bulldogs crowned the first three individual Finals champions in team history.

“This tournament was unbelievable,” said Chelsea coach Tom Osbeck. “The highest we’ve finished before in school history was seventh place. We never had a player reach the finals before, and this year we not only had finalists in three flights but we had three state champions.”

Freshman Anne-Marie Begola claimed the first individual title for the Bulldogs as she won at No. 4 singles.

“This feels amazing,” Begola said. “I was really happy to just make it to states. To win the state championship is an incredible feeling.

“This feels very special. We broke a lot of records as a team, and this was a very special occasion.”

Soon after Begola won her title, Chelsea’s No. 4 doubles team of Megan Boughton and Meghan Bareis won another.

“They are good friends and good teammates,” Osbeck said. “They are just amazing together as a team. They hung in there the whole match against a really good Cranbrook team.”

Cranbrook Kingswood tennisTopping off the day for Chelsea was a surprising effort from senior Rachel Bareis. Unseeded at No. 3 singles, Bareis completed a memorable weekend by winning the flight championship.

“I just gave it everything I had,” Bareis said. “It was the last match of my high school career, and just getting to the Finals was amazing. I relied on my teammates to pull me through. I felt their energy knowing they were all there supporting me. They gave me the energy to push through.”

At No. 1 doubles, the Grand Rapids Christian senior duo of Dafna Heule and Grace Poortenga was another flight champion that surpassed its seed, after entering the weekend third in the bracket.

“Four years of high school tennis all built up to this,” said Heule. “To even get this far as a senior is really special.”

“At a single-elimination tournament like this, most players end their season with a loss,” Poortenga added. “To win your final match is so special. We figured out as partners how to pick each other up.”

Detroit Country Day's Aryasai Radhakrishnan and Marin Norlander also made an impressive run above their seed, claiming the championship at No. 2 doubles despite entering seeded fifth in the flight. No. 3 doubles Alyssa Rahmani and Emily Weinmann succeeded similarly for the Yellowjackets, claiming a championship from the third seed line.

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PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Country Day’s Aryasai Radhakrishnan returns a volley during a No. 2 doubles match Saturday. (Middle) Cranbrook Kingswood’s Daryn Krause takes her position as teammate Kayli Lala prepares to serve at No. 3 doubles. (Below) Grand Rapids Christian’s Dafna Heule serves during a No. 1 doubles match. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

Team of the Month: Negaunee Girls Tennis

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

October 21, 2022

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. 

So when coach Kyle Saari says this year’s team stands out among them, that’s actually saying quite a lot.

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.”