Prep girls tennis: Road to Mid-Peninsula Conference title tougher than expected for undefeated Negaunee

ISHPEMING – The big bully who never lost a fight all season did what was expected on Wednesday afternoon.

But the Negaunee High School girls tennis team, that “bully” on the courts, had a hard-fought battle to defend its Mid-Peninsula Conference meet championship at west-end courts in Marquette County on Wednesday.

With the meet hosted by Ishpeming, all the championship matches were held at the Ishpeming Playgrounds as earlier rounds were spread around to Westwood and Negaunee, too.

The Miners haven’t lost a dual meet during the past six weeks and are the only school among the five in the conference that will go on to play in Division 1 at next Wednesday’s Upper Peninsula Finals in Kingsford.

The other four schools – Westwood, Ishpeming, Gwinn and Iron Mountain – will make up a majority of the field at the Division 2 finals that return to the same Ishpeming and neighboring courts next week. They’ll be joined by Munising, West Iron County and Ironwood.

“I feel we have an opportunity now with Negaunee going to Division 1 and a couple other schools we’ve had some success against that will be at the Division 2 finals,” said Ishpeming coach Erl Langness, whose young team finished a strong fourth on Wednesday.

But the conference meet was no cakewalk for Negaunee, which was tied with Westwood and trailed IM by four points after the first few championship matches were played, according to Miners coach Kyle Saari.

It was only a flurry of titles down the stretch that gave Negaunee a 38-point total, compared to 30 for runner-up Westwood and 29 for third-place IM. Those are nearly the same numbers those three teams posted last year when the meet was held in Kingsford. Ishpeming was next with 21 points, while Gwinn had 2.

Six points were awarded for winning a title and four for second. A single pro-style set decided a consolation match for the three points for third place and two for fourth. An early fifth-place bowout netted a team nothing.

“Tournaments are all about the matchups,” Miners coach Kyle Saari said. “I knew that in certain doubles flights, and even in the singles, that the other teams definitely could push us.

“When you throw five different teams together, you just can’t afford to take a zero (for fifth place). Really, that’s where our depth is – we got points all the way across the board.”

In fact, the Miners did no worse than third in every one of the eight flights, including taking half the championships.

Three titles came in singles, led by junior Allison Carlson taking the prestigious No. 1 crown with a 6-1, 6-2 championship match victory over IM’s Katie Brule. Sophomore Angela Ring blanked Ishpeming’s Jessica Penhale 6-0, 6-0 for the title at No. 3 singles, while junior Dana DeBretto had to work a bit harder in a 7-5, 6-2 victory for the crown at No. 4 singles over Westwood’s Rachel Anderson.

In doubles, Negaunee senior April Walimaa and junior Kassy Harsila teamed up for the No. 4 title after beating Westwood’s Emily Carlson and Jamee Ferris, 6-1, 7-5 in the championship.

“She’s a good player,” Carlson said of Brule. “She’s a tough kind of player for me because she comes up to the net a lot.”

Westwood and IM split the remaining four championships, and even though the Patriots actually had one fewer finalist than the Mountaineers, IM took a zero in one flight that proved to be the difference between second and third place.

“I think we ended up where we belong,” Westwood coach Chris Jackson said. “Everybody won at least one match for us. It’s like a chess match out there, trying to figure out how the points are going to fall.”

Both Patriot championships came in doubles and were particularly gratifying for two reasons – they came after hard-fought title matches and against Mountaineer opponents.

At No. 3, WHS junior Lacey Pietro and sophomore Olivia Derocha outlasted IM’s Kathryn Brown and Cayle Carey, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Then a bit later with all the other players watching, the Patriots’ No. 1 tandem of Katie Rankinen and Shana Caliguri, both juniors, were the last players of the day to walk off the court victorious after posting a 6-2, 7-6 (9-7) win over the Mountaineers’ Elli McCole and Emily Chang.

“We just had to play a smart match,” Rankinen said. “My favorite thing is to play in matches that are nailbiters.”

“They figured me out, that I went to the (doubles) alleys a lot,” Caliguri said, “so we had to come up with some other strategy.

“You’re always thinking out there, but even more in this match.”

IM got its titles from sophomore twin sisters Kate and Emily Bugni at No. 2 doubles, where they zipped past Negaunee’s Kylee Taavola and Hanna Kantola, 6-1, 6-0, and No. 2 singles as Olivia Truscott held off the Miners’ Abbi Kill, 6-2, 6-2.