By Keith Shelton
Special to Second Half
KINGSFORD – It was a true test of depth, mental toughness and endurance Wednesday at the MHSAA Division 1 Upper Peninsula Tennis Finals at Kingsford High School.
The Negaunee Miners proved, by a slim margin, to have just enough of each to reclaim their foothold as U.P. champions.
Negaunee won with 15 points followed by Menominee’s 12, Kingsford and Marquette with 11, Escanaba two and Gladstone one. The four-team battle that ensued throughout the day made for one of the more enticing Finals events in recent history.
With four flights left finishing, all four teams still had a legitimate shot at the title. Coming down to the final two flights of the tournament, the title was still up for grabs between Negaunee and Menominee.
The Maroons needed to win No. 3 doubles. But they were denied thanks to a thrilling comeback by Anthony Moyle and Rob Loy. After dropping the first set to Aaron Maas and Adam Nolde 6-2, the Negaunee teammates found themselves down 5-0 in the second set before rallying back to win 7-5 and force a third set, which they won 6-4.
"It's unbelievable. It was an amazing comeback," said Loy after securing the U.P. title for his team.
For Loy the victory was also about validation. The junior didn't play last season and had some decision making to do before he came back this year.
"I'm really happy he decided to come back. We won, and it's definitely a good feeling," said Loy's teammate, Moyle.
The pressure of it all coming down to their match in addition to needing to rally back from a 5-0 hole did wear on the teammates, they acknowledged.
"It was nerve-wracking at first. You kind of lost your head. It's tough coming back from being down 5-0," Loy said.
Agreed Moyle, "It's pretty hard. Tennis is probably one of the biggest mind games compared to other sports you play. There's ups and downs everywhere. I'm glad we came out on top."
Negaunee’s Ben Luke at No. 4 singles was still in the midst of his match with Marquette's Justin Flood when the celebration ensued. Soon after Loy and Moyle's victory, Luke got his as well, winning 7-6 (6), 6-2.
Though the pressure was off, he said he kept his composure.
"I was just excited to see that we won, but I was focused on finishing my own match and getting it done," he said.
For Luke, it was a long day, after he went through two three-setters, including over top-seeded Alek Shanks of Kingsford.
Miners coach Kyle Saari praised his team for its mental toughness, which he said keyed its fourth Division 1 title in five years.
"We had kids come through in tough situations mentally," he said. "Ben Luke beat two kids he hadn't beat all year today, and we had that happen in a few flights. We talk about peaking at the end of the year, and that's what we were able to do, so I'm proud of them."
Defending champion Kingsford didn't go down quietly. The Flivvers started the final round hot, taking No. 1 singles and doubles and looking like they were in business for more.
Adam Szabo at No. 1 singles had perhaps the most dominant performance of the day, defeating Marquette's Josh Downs in that final 6-0, 6-1, displaying a razor quick release and a smooth and swift motion. Downs marked Szabo's only defeat during the season, but Wednesday there was no doubt who would finish on top.
The top two tennis players in the Upper Peninsula in Division 1 are both juniors, so the rivalry will no doubt continue into 2015.
"I played with a chip on my shoulder, just really confident. You have to go in that way," Szabo said.
The Flivvers also scored a nice win at No. 3 singles where Chris Roell defeated his season-long nemesis Noah Gannon of Marquette 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.
The rivals played three three-set matches this season, all very close. At the Great Northern Conference Tournament earlier this month, it was Gannon who came out on top 6-7, 7-6, 6-3.
"There were some close matches with Noah this year. I knew I could play with him, I knew I could beat him, and I came through," Roell said. "He's the best in the U.P., and he fought right to the end. I credit him. He had a great season. I just got the better of him today."
The Maroons put all four of their doubles flights in the finals, but their lone victory came at No. 4 where juniors Nick Cattani and Colin Merat won a contested match against Kingsford seniors Peter Fornetti and Kevin LeClaire 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.
"We just fell short in a couple tiebreakers, and Negaunee played great tennis today," Maroons coach Troy Reuter said. "We had some high goals coming into the year, and the kids worked hard over the summer and winter. They gave it everything they had.
"It's a little disappointing not to take the title, but to be right there, I'm proud of the kids. I can't complain."
PHOTOS: (Top) Negaunee’s Stephen Trawick and Alex Roth continue a volley during their semifinal match at No. 2 doubles Wednesday. (Middle) Kingsford’s Adam Szabo returns a shot en route to winning No. 1 singles. (Photos by Ron Deuter.)