By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
JACKSON – Jackson Lumen Christi junior Taylor Smith is a team player who is in an individual situation.
Just two years ago, Smith, who plays No. 1 singles for the Titans girls tennis team, prioritized basketball over tennis because she enjoyed the team aspect so much.
The passion has changed. Tennis is her game, and her team recently moved up to No. 1 in the Lower Peninsula Division 4 rankings. It is a great situation for someone whose favorite part about her sport is the team aspect.
“I liked tennis, but I didn’t love it until last season,” said Smith, who advanced to the MHSAA Division 4 quarterfinals at No. 1 singles as a freshman and sophomore before losing. “Being out there alone, that is why it took me so long to like tennis. I wanted to play college basketball until last summer.
“When I do USTA tournaments, I’m by myself, and it isn’t any fun. I’m winning only for myself. I like to work toward a team to get farther along. It’s not about me getting there; it is about us getting there.
Reaching No. 1
No tennis team can make it to No. 1 in a state poll with just one star player, and Lumen Christi is no different. While Smith – already a two-time Jackson Citizen Patriot Player of the Year in girls tennis – is the Titans’ feature player, she is surrounded by talent.
“We have six juniors and two seniors this year,” Lumen Christi coach Terri McEldowney said. “When these girls were in sixth or seventh grade, (assistant coach) Marcy Smith and I took over the middle-school program, so they’ve all played together through the years.
“When they came on as freshmen, they were good but not maybe match tough. Now we have them as juniors and seniors, they are match tough. Now it’s all coming together.”
Lumen Christi (13-0) finished fourth last year in Division 4 and began the season ranked No. 4. But all that changed after a competitive quad meet hosted April 28 by the Titans, who defeated current No. 3 Kalamazoo Hackett 5-3, current No. 8 Traverse City St. Francis 7-1 and current No. 10 Kalamazoo Christian 7-1.
“Beating Hackett was huge for us,” junior Sela Clifford said. “That was one of the teams we were worried about. We just went out there and did our thing. It helped us to know that we can beat Hackett as a team.”
That major showing in the stacked quad came a week after Lumen Christi won the Ann Arbor Greenhills Gryphon Tournament. Greenhills currently is ranked No. 2. After that impressive showing, the Titans vaulted to No. 1.
For a program that has never finished higher than third at an MHSAA Finals, the Titans were thrilled.
“We were all screaming. We were so excited,” Smith said. “The past few years we were like top five, but this year we want to win. We’ve been waiting, and this is our chance.”
McEldowney also knows what comes with the No. 1 ranking.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “The girls hear it a lot, and they are excited about it and everything, but what comes with it is added pressure to always do so well. When you don’t, it’s hard; it’s hard on teen-age girls, but it’s an exciting time, too.”
Clifford, who plays No. 2 singles, welcomes the pressure.
“Pressure helps me to perform better, so I think pressure will help us perform better as a team,” Clifford said. “I feel like we’ll always have a target on our back. I think the target will help us to work harder as a team.”
Smith comes from a family with strong tennis ties. Her mother, Marcy, the assistant coach, played at Lumen Christi and went on to play at Marquette University.
Smith’s aunt, Keri Thompson, was a two-time Division 4 Finals champion at No. 1 singles in 1999 and 2000 while playing for Lumen Christi. She went on to play at Michigan State University and currently is the girls tennis coach at Royal Oak Shrine.
“Tennis has always been in my life, and I grew up with it,” Smith said. “I was constantly playing tennis and working on it.”
There was no shortage of people wanting to help.
“She started playing when she was 4,” Smith’s mother said. “We had a court in the backyard, so we’ve been drop-feeding balls to her since that age. She plays USTA tournaments, and she wants to play in college.”
It wasn’t until last summer, when Smith was introduced to Junior Wightman Cup action, that her focus changed from basketball to tennis nets.
“I went to the Wightman Cup, and its exactly how college tennis is played, and once I did that, it was like, ‘This is what I want to do and what I love.’ Then I focused on tennis and not basketball,” Smith said.
Smith has a strong game, but both her mother and McEldowney point to her composure on the court as maybe her greatest asset.
“What is great about Taylor is she is such a mature, even-keel player,” McEldowney said. “She doesn’t seem to get rattled. Maybe the only thing we wish she had a little more of is a little more fight in her, but I think that’s going to come. It is partly her personality.
“She is a mature, quiet young lady. We see the fight in her, but it is quiet. That is not necessarily a bad thing.”
It is the thing that makes her mother the proudest when she is on the court.
“When she fights and works as hard as she can, it makes me the proudest,” she said. “There is nothing better than watching her give 100 percent and still stay composed and be a leader.
“She has very good court composure.”
Taylor has very good technique as well.
“She’s like the whole package: strong serves, depth, cross-court,” McEldowney said. “She has a wonderful cross-court forehand that she can get with that topspin.”
But what she isn’t is a finished product. And everyone agrees on a part of her game that might need the most work.
“When she plays a player who is giving her a run for her money, she needs to get a little quicker,” McEldowney said. “Some of the better tennis players that she comes against – I don’t think they’re better skill-wise or better strategy-wise – but they might be a little better at the feet. And it’s not like she doesn’t have it, but she doesn’t have it all the time.
“There is tennis feet. It’s not that she is slow to get to the ball, but she doesn’t get there in a tennis form, like her hips are in the way or she isn’t set up properly for the ball.”
Smith is on the same page as her coach.
“My footwork is definitely my weak spot for sure,” Smith said. “I have not focused on tennis until last summer, so the footwork thing is a big part of my game that I need to improve.”
Smith is 18-1 this season, and her lone loss was a compelling 4-6, 6-3, 10-6 loss to Natalie Moyer of Kalamazoo Hackett during the quad.
Deep pool of talent
Lumen Christi’s top four singles players have a combined record of 66-10. The four doubles teams are a combined 64-8. That’s depth.
“We knew we had a good crop, definitely, but did we think that we would be in the running to bring a banner to Lumen Christi? It wasn’t even on my radar. I just didn’t think that way,” McEldowney said. “We don’t even have a club in town, so it’s hard to get these girls playing all year round.
“Really, out of our 13 varsity players, I’d say five at the most play year-round, meaning that they play at Craig Calderone’s court or maybe up to Lansing for lessons. The rest are athletes. They play all the sports all year long and they come out and pick up a racket and they’re a little rusty and then they pick it right up.”
Cilfford is in a unique situation. Last year, she was moved from singles to No. 1 doubles and teamed with Lauren Reynolds. They went on to win the Division 4 championship at their flight.
“Sela could have been our 2 or 3 singles player easily, as with her doubles partner, but we knew putting them at 1 doubles would make our doubles better,” McEldowney said. “Sela really wanted to play singles, but she sacrificed that, as did her partner, so that we’d be stronger team-wise.
“We told her that if you do this, you will win states, and they did.”
Looking back, Clifford sees a lot of positive things that came out of that “sacrifice.”
“I learned a lot about teamwork and not breaking under pressure,” she said. “I learned a lot more mental toughness from that. It definitely made me a better singles player.”
This year, Clifford is 17-1 at No. 2 singles.
“I’m very excited; it’s like a new step for me and a bigger step,” she said. “I miss playing doubles with my partner, though.”
Sophomore Nina Dunigan is 14-5 at No. 3 singles, and freshman Shae Wright is 17-3 at No. 4 singles.
The No. 1 doubles team of senior Jocee McEldowney and junior Geraldine Berkemeier is 17-0 after moving up from No. 2 doubles a year ago. They survived a heart-breaking and stressful match in the MHSAA semifinals last season.
“We had a little bit of a conflict in the last match,” Jocee McEldowney said. “We were both very different last year, and this year we have meshed together and bonded and found out how to use our strengths with each other’s strengths. Last year it was our first year playing together.
“When there is a missed shot in doubles, you have to forgive your partner and move on. A ball, whether it was in or out, was questioned, and we disagreed. It helped us and showed us that the other person really wants to win.”
To their credit, they learned from their disagreement instead of allowing it to fester.
“At the beginning of our season, our coaches sat us down, and Marcy said, ‘When I was playing in college, I got really frustrated, and my partner looked at me and said, ‘Do you think I’m trying to hit it out?’” McEldowney recalled. “I felt like Geraldine and I sometimes got upset with each other, and obviously she is not trying to hit it out, so we’re bonding a lot better because of how we left it last year and the confidence we have. We definitely have unfinished business.”
It doesn’t hurt that Lumen Christi had a Finals championship at No. 1 doubles a year ago.
“Geraldine could certainly be in the singles lineup, but we knew pairing her with Jocee would just strengthen the team, and they will do well,” Terri McEldowney said. “They haven’t lost, and they’ve beaten some of the teams that finished in the top four in the state last year. They have the potential to be a state champion this year.”
Juniors Josie Gibson and Madison King are 17-2 at No. 2 doubles, and the Titans are 13-6 at No. 3 singles while battling an injury. Junior Mackenna Crowley is 4-2 with senior Meghan Fors, her regular partner who is injured, and 9-4 with sophomore Macaulie Simpson.
At No. 4 doubles, sophomore Macie Richmond and freshman Cat Carroll are 17-0.
“We are deep,” McEldowney said.
Aiming for history
As the top-ranked team, the Titans feel they can realistically think about winning the first MHSAA Finals championship in girls tennis in school history. They also realize nothing is guaranteed and nothing will be handed to them.
“I never realized how good of a team we had,” Berkemeier said. “I’ve always felt like where is that one team that is going to beat us at states and take it from us? We haven’t played (Bloomfield Hills Academy of the) Sacred Heart yet, but we’ve played some of the top teams and won.”
While Lumen Christi has had a lot of success in several sports (44 MHSAA titles across nine sports), it is known as a football school, and last fall the Titans won their ninth championship in that sport.
“The football players talk about being state champs and try to brag about it all the time,” Berkemeier said. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s awesome, but I want to have it, too.
“Last year, everyone thought we had a lot of potential, and we did, and we wanted to win state so badly, and we went in there and got our hearts broken. I remember leaving the court after semifinals and bawling my eyes out. We wanted it so much, and now it makes me want to choke up thinking about it.”
That memory certainly is fuel to make another run.
“I think the chemistry on the team is meshing,” Coach McEldowney said. “They get along, and they are just a fun bunch of girls. They cheer each other on from all parts of the court, so I think it’s just kind of a year of coming together tennis-wise, mental-wise, and smart, match-play wise.
“But I know Hackett is going to be coming for us, and so will Greenhills. And you can’t count out Sacred Heart, and Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian is having a fine year.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lumen Christi's Sela Clifford readies to return a volley during last season's Division 4 championship match at No. 1 doubles. (Middle) Clifford, now a junior, and 2016 doubles partner Lauren Reynolds receive some coaching during the Finals. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)