BY DENNIS CHASE email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — St. Francis tennis coach Jeff Hughes juggled his lineup during the season — and it paid off with a Division 4 regional title Thursday at Traverse City Central.
The Gladiators won five flights in finishing with 27 points. Ludington, the defending regional champion, took second with 24 points and Harbor Springs was third with 21. All three advance to the state meet.
Ludington led St. Francis by a point heading into the flight finals. But that’s where the Gladiators seized control, beating the Orioles in four head-to-head matches. St. Francis locked it down when Lauren Hansen beat Ludington’s Kelsey Wallace 6-0, 7-5 at No. 4 singles and Harbor Springs’ Eva Zoerhof and Mikayla Dickinson downed Ludington’s Anika Schmock and Olivia Laman 6-4, 6-2 at No. 2 doubles. St. Francis put an exclamation point on it when Natalie Burke captured No. 2 singles with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 win over Emily Lesky of Harbor Springs.
“It came right down to the wire,” Gladiators coach Jeff Hughes said. “Ludington was actually a little stronger than I thought they were going to be. I’m proud of the way our team played. It was a great day.”
Hansen was one of the players switched in the lineup during the season. She and Lena Popp started the season at No. 3 doubles.
“We’ve always been singles players,” Hansen said. “(Hughes) tried us at 3 doubles this year and it just didn’t work so he switched us back.”
Popp reached the semifinals at No. 3 singles.
To make room for Popp and Hansen in the singles rotation, Hughes moved freshmen Carlee McCardel and Bethany Richey out of those spots to No. 4 doubles. Sarah Stayman and Rosie Wilson were bumped from No. 4 doubles to No. 3.
“All the moves really helped our team out,” Hansen said.
Both doubles teams won regional titles. Stayman and Wilson claimed No. 3 doubles with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Ludington’s Claire Flewelling and Julia Maltbie. McCardel and Richey captured No. 4 doubles by downing Ludington’s Madda Pung and Kayela Wallace 6-0, 6-4.
“We were pretty happy with how we played,” McCardel said. “It’s (pairing) working out pretty good for us this year.”
“Our strengths and weaknesses balance each other out,” Richey added.
Stayman won a regional doubles title last year with Courtney McCardel. Now she’s with Wilson, a freshman.
“It’s been good to have Rosie as my partner,” Stayman said. “That’s the best we’ve played in a really long time.”
“We have a good connection,” Wilson responded.
The Gladiators averted a crisis before the tournament even started with No. 1 singles star Amanda Bandrowski battling illness.
“She almost didn’t show up today she was so sick,” Hughes said.
Bandrowski did show and was in control throughout, beating Ludington’s Samantha MacDonnell 6-2, 6-2 in the finals.
The freshman described her condition as “minor flu, plus allergies.”
“Kind of a combo,” she said. “It was moderately difficult for me today, particularly the last match.”
Ludington coach Tom Kudwa was pleased with his team’s second-place finish.
“We lost a lot of seniors last season and then we lost four players we were expecting back — all integral players, too,” he said. “We had to rebuild. At the beginning of the year we couldn’t beat anybody. To be where we are today is exciting. I would never have thought we would be going to states this year. We’ve come a long way. Today was a good day. I’m really proud of these kids.
“Hat’s off to St. Francis. They have a superior group. They’re well coached, very skilled.”
St. Francis avoided an early upset when Chloe Lodge and Bailey Chouinard were pushed to three sets in their first match by Charlevoix’s Cassidy Peebles and Karley Pearsall at No. 1 doubles. Lodge and Chouinard went on to reach the finals before losing to Ludington’s Gabrielle and Stephanie Kelly 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
Courtney McCardel and Emily Szmania reached the semifinals at No. 2 doubles.
Traverse City Christian came in fourth with 10 points, a surprise to coach Tim Sutherland.
“We had a really inexperienced team this year,” he said. “We had seven kids who had never picked up a racquet before.
“We always talk about growing and playing our best tennis at regionals and we played our best tennis today. We won matches I was only dreaming about earlier in the year. We put it all together. We’ve improved as much as any team I’ve had. It was an exciting day.”