By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – Claire DeYoung had every reason to believe her senior season would be her best.

And it still might turn out that way, now that the Mona Shores No. 1 singles player has regained her form heading into this week’s regional tournament.

Clare Deyoung returns a shot during GMAA city tournament action at Whitehall on May 3. Photo/Jason Goorman

Claire DeYoung returns a shot during GMAA city tournament. 

As a junior she was a finalist at the city meet and the O-K Black Conference tournament, and reached the semifinals in regional play.

But she didn’t play like a champion for much of this spring.

The weather was crummy, keeping the team inside for too many weeks. The players had to adjust to their new coach, Craig Kelley, who took the job just weeks before play began.

DeYoung lost several matches in the early part of the season against tough opponents, and she ran out of steam in her final attempt to win a coveted Greater Muskegon City Tournament title.

The city meet was particularly tough for DeYoung. As a junior she qualified for the No. 1 singles finals, but had to forfeit because she had out of town plans that night with her family.

This year she won her first match at city, but lost the grueling first set of a semifinal match against Whitehall’s Carlie Bishop, then fizzled in the second and lost the match.

“I really wanted to win it, but I was exhausted, I had prom that night, and I had a lot on my mind,” said DeYoung, whose sisters Audrey and Elizabeth played No. 1 singles at Muskegon Catholic. “I was really disappointed at first, but then I tried to remember that conference and regionals were still coming up. I tried to look at the big picture.”

Since the city meet, DeYoung has been at the top of her game.

Last week she helped her team defeat Zeeland East in a key dual match, putting the Sailors in first place in the O-K Black Conference.

Then on Saturday she won a grueling three-set match against Zeeland East’s Sarah VanWieren in the O-K Black tournament finals, clinching the outright league title for Mona Shores.

Luckily for DeYoung, she was completely unaware that the outcome of her match would be the difference between a league co-championship and outright title.

“I had no idea it was the deciding match,” said DeYoung, a fourth-year varsity player. “I heard later that my coach wanted to tell me in the middle of the match, but the assistant coach said don’t tell her. I was already nervous as it was. Knowing that would have been even more pressure.”

DeYoung’s victory was even more dramatic since she lost the first set 3-6 and had to rally to win the last two – 6-3 and 6-4 – to clinch the match and the title for her team.

“I had played the same girl earlier in the week, so I knew her game, and I just figured, it’s my senior year, so I might as well give it my all.

“It was a great feeling after I won and all my teammates came running out telling me we won the conference.”

Deyoung on the serve during the GMAA's annual city tennis championships.

DeYoung serves during the city tournament.

Now DeYoung has one more opportunity to leave her mark in varsity tennis. The Sailors will compete in a state regional tournament Thursday at Holland High School, with a chance to qualify for the state finals.

She could make it with her team if the Sailors finish first or second or score enough points to slip under the wire. Or she could make it individually if she qualifies for the title match in the No. 1 singles bracket.

Considering the fact that she was a semifinalist last year, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

“I’m finally starting to play again like I did last year,” DeYoung said. “I’m taking regionals very seriously. I’m going to try very hard to make it to state. I’m really determined.”

Kelley, the first-year coach, has watched DeYoung improve dramatically in recent weeks.

“Up to the last week she hadn’t been playing with a whole lot of confidence, but now she’s starting to find her stride again,” he said.

“On any given day she can hit with anybody. Her serve just keeps getting better and better, and she gets a lot of easy points that way. She has also been flattening her ground strokes very well, so it gets to opponents in a hurry.”

Ironically, the Mona Shores team has had the same type of season as DeYoung. The Sailors started slowly and lost several early matches, then finished a disappointing second to North Muskegon in the city tournament.

But like DeYoung, the rest of the Sailors started to gel in recent weeks, allowing the team to scratch out the O-K Black Conference title.

Other Sailors winning their flights at the conference meet were Sophie Gossett (No. 2 singles), Madison Hronek (No. 3 singles) and Emily Klemp and Erika Vanderlaan (No. 1 doubles). Runners-up for Mona Shores were Bella Purosky (No. 4 singles) and Maddie Myhre and Marissa Duff (No. 4 doubles).

“Right now the kids are absolutely playing the best tennis they have all season,” Kelley said. “I have a feeling they will do even better at regionals on Thursday.”