Macomb Dakota senior Ashley Gottschling returns the ball during a team practice.

Macomb Dakota senior Ashley Gottschling returns the ball during a team practice.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

MAC White belongs to Dakota tennis for second straight season

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Macomb Chronicle | Published May 22, 2024


MACOMB TOWNSHIP — For the second straight year, Macomb Dakota girls tennis sits atop the Macomb Area Conference White division.

The Cougars earned the clean sweep last year with the dual meet and divisional meet championship, but a tie with Utica Ford II at the divisional meet would keep the thought of back-to-back sweeps shelved.

Dakota has had a firm grasp on the league since Grosse Pointe North — which won three straight league titles from 2019 to 2022 (2020 was the COVID-19 year) — moved up to the MAC Red, but this year was arguably Dakota’s toughest test.

With first-year head coach Hayden Carey at the helm and a slew of players shuffling to different flights, it was intriguing to see how the new-look Dakota tennis team would operate.

For Carey, who played tennis at Mt. Pleasant High School, it was taking on the pressure of being a head coach of a Dakota athletic program.

“It (the pressure) was motivating to me too because these girls are out here and they want to learn and they want to improve, and everybody is clamoring for a spot on varsity when I only have three available,” Carey said. “It was nerve-wracking for me because I heard how intense the season can be, but when I saw at every practice that they’re out here trying and wanting to improve and working on doubles drills, and all the girls were giving me wonderful feedback saying, ‘Oh, we like the drills we’re doing, we feel like we’re actually improving,’ that was reassuring to me. I feel like we fed off of each other’s energy very well.”

Before the season began, Carey, who also coaches the Dakota boys tennis team, did what any coach unfamiliar with his team would do — run challenge matches for singles.

Senior Ashley Gottschling, who was the No. 3 singles player last year, came out on top and anchored the singles Flight 1 for the entirety of the season.

It was a massive jump in competition in only a year, but Carey said he knew she was ready for the challenge.

“She’s wise beyond her years,” Carey said. “She’s so mature and so poised. The emotions always get her a little bit on the court, but it’s because she expects so much out of herself. She’s not a hothead by any means, but she just knows when she’s playing down to her opponent’s level that she needs to pick it up and play her game. If there’s a real challenge there, she always gives credit to her opponents.”

Gottschling held her own to the tune of a 3-2 league record while senior Reagan Tencza (No. 2 singles), senior McKenna Koneval (No. 3 singles), and senior Summer Nietubicz (No. 4 singles) all went undefeated in league play.

Nietubicz, a Macomb L’Anse Creuse North transfer last year, was dominant for a Cougars singles lineup that was already impressive enough.

The senior crew at the singles spot will be a tough void to fill, but Carey said their leadership will be something that sticks in the program.

“Reagan was gathering the team up after every match and doing our chant, and she’s talking to the new players and making them welcome,” Carey said. “Ashley did as well, but she’s a little more of a reserved person in general. McKenna too. Her and Reagan did really well.”

On the doubles side, which Carey played at Mt. Pleasant, there were moving parts across the flights this season.

Carey said he wanted the team to feel comfortable with the doubles partners and that he wanted each player to find someone they’re compatible with, so the doubles flights did a complete makeover from 2023.

Juniors Haylee Fitzgerald and Christina Hedrick (No. 1 doubles), seniors Haley Isbell and Mary Varga (No. 2 doubles), seniors Erin VanHowe and Juliana Vidoevski (No. 3 doubles), and senior Isabella Ritter and junior Caroline Genna (No. 4 doubles) all led the doubles group for Dakota. Juniors Dominika Cybart and Gabriella Fuller controlled the doubles Flight 5.

VanHowe and Vidoevski were arguably the most improved doubles group in the MAC, going from the exhibition doubles spot in 2023 to being undefeated in the league as a starting doubles group.

“They just get each other,” Carey said. “They were out there being positive and just smacking the ball. They were great for a (No.) 3 doubles. They could’ve been interchangeable with my 2, if I’m being honest.”

Dakota ended its season on May 15 at the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 1 Region 6 Championship at Utica Eisenhower High School, placing seventh out of a field of nine teams.

Dakota’s region is one of the more stacked local regions you’ll see, featuring Romeo, Rochester Hills Stoney Creek (No. 6 D1), Utica Eisenhower (No. 4 D1), and Port Huron Northern (No. 8 D1), which all qualified for states this year.

“It’s scary, man,” Carey said. “It’s intimidating, for sure. I love my team and I know how much talent we have, but just being up against these teams, I’m like, ‘If we were in a different region, it would be a different story.’”

Dakota will be dealt a poor hand next season with an extensive number of seniors set to graduate, but don’t count them out for making another run at a MAC White title.