West Iron’s Kylee Erickson, two-time co-player of the year in U.P. girls tennis, serves up a shot during a match early this fall.
By Peter Nocerini
IRON RIVER—Before she could become a two-time girls tennis champion, West Iron County’s Kylee Erickson had to win a bigger battle.
That opponent: herself.
Midway through her first singles title match in early October, Erickson suddenly started struggling and battled to control her self-doubt. Then she got back in control and rallied to win the U.P. singles title in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.
For all four of her years on the WIC girls tennis team, Erickson reached the first singles title match at the Division 2 U.P. State Finals. She was U.P. runner-up as a freshman and sophomore and U.P. champion as a junior and senior.
This year, she was named the U.P.’s co-player of the year with Escanaba’s Codi Jenshak, who won the Division 1 singles title. It’s Kylee’s second year as co-player of the year—she shared the honor with Kingsford’s Sam Fleming in 2011.
Let’s get back to Oct. 3 and that Division 2 title match against Westwood’s Sarah Massie. Erickson won the first set, 6-2. In the second set, she ran into problems, and Massie built up a 4-1 lead—two games from forcing an all-or-nothing third set.
Erickson realized she was playing defensively—playing not to lose.
“I am very hard on myself,” she explained. “I get frustrated with myself.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t able to deal with it sometimes. In my junior and especially my senior years, I learned to deal with that, and I didn’t get nearly as mad as I did before.”
Against Massie, Erickson realized in time that she had fallen back into that same old negative frame of mind. “I was thinking, ‘No, you can’t lose this! I don’t want to go to a third set!’”
Joe Serbentas realized it, too. Serbentas is Kylee’s step-dad and a volunteer assistant with the girls team. During a short break, he passed along some advice: “You just need to relax.”
“I was putting so much pressure on myself because I knew I was expected to win. So I was, ‘What if I lose?’ and I was just thinking of all the consequences … instead of having fun.”
The match resumed, and Kylee rallied. She won three straight games to tie the set 4-4. Then she won the next two games to win the set, the match and her second U.P. title.
“If I had been in that kind of situation when I was younger,” she said, “I don’t think I could have pulled it off, because I would have been mad at myself.”
In part, the change is that she has become older, more mature and batter able to realize “that this isn’t the end of the world.”
“I tell myself, ‘You’ve practiced—that’s all you can do. So go out there and put it into practice. And just have fun with it.’
“And I noticed the more I relaxed, the better I ended up playing.”
Just before the U.P. finals, Erickson won the first singles title at the Great Northern Conference tournament. West Iron is the only Class C school in the GNC—the others are Class A or B in enrollment.
“I was really excited about that,” she said. “I beat the Escanaba girl, who had only one loss the whole season—to me.
“It was really nice to get that out of the way and say ‘I won GNCs! Little West Iron!’ It was one of those days when everything seemed to be working.”
Along with being stronger mentally, Erickson’s skills improved each year. This fall, most of her matches were fairly easy. “They were just getting me ready for those few girls who were great competition”--Westwood’s Massie, Escanaba’s Jenshak and Kingsford’s Fleming. “There were four of us, and we all made the all-state team this year.”
Luckily for Kylee, her step-dad is a top-notch tennis coach: Joe Serbentas has led West Iron’s boys team to five U.P. Division 2 team championships. In the fall, he volunteers with the girls team, coached by Denise Spelgatti.
Before Kylee entered seventh grade, Serbentas gave her a racket: “Let’s see if you like tennis.” She did, and soon she was playing in youth tournaments. Under his tutelage, she improved quickly.
A training tool that really helped her was ball machines that can be set to deliver different speeds and types of shots. West Iron got one during her junior year. “This past summer, that’s all I hit with. It was my best friend—I was out there at Nelson Field every day with that ball machine. It really helped me.”
She also went with some of the U.P.’s top boys singles players to Marquette each week for coaching. “I played with all the guys up there, and that helped me so much—just hitting with guys.”
The championship match in early October was Kylee Erickson’s final high school tennis match. What happens after she graduates?
Kylee hopes to get accepted at the University of Michigan or Michigan State. If so, she would focus on her studies but try out for an intramural club team—if she has the time.
In summer? She talked about working at a tennis camp, passing along her knowledge to young players. “I could see myself doing that during summers. I love kids, so that would be a good job.”
In any case, tennis will remain part of her life. “I can’t imagine not playing, because it helped my confidence a lot. That hard work really does pay off. It taught me a lot.”