By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
GOODRICH — The team to beat in this year's regional had been the runner-up in the MHSAA Division 3 girls golf tournament the last three seasons.
Another contender had five championships and 25 top-10 finishes at the MHSAA Finals on its resumé.
Well, a year ago, while Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood and Flint Powers Catholic already had early-season tournaments under their belts as they prepared for another run to the finals, all Goodrich's program had was a single piece of paper sitting in the school office. Goodrich never had a girls golf team, but had two talented sisters in the school who hoped there was enough interest to form a club team in 2014.
"We just put a sign-up sheet in the office," Goodrich junior Sydni Harding said. "They made daily announcements. Finally, we had six. Once I saw that, it was like, 'Sweet, we've got a team.'"
Time was of the essence, because school had already started and the highly compressed girls golf season had already been going for several weeks. Before Jason Bescoe was hired as coach, sisters Sydni and Taylor Harding took their new teammates out to the Flint Elks Club to introduce them to a sport that most of them had never played.
"We were like, 'OK, just get hitting, we'll work on the swing mechanics later,'" Sydni said. "We needed to get ready and be prepared. We practiced like that for a few weeks. (Bescoe) brought in a couple of swing pros and really worked with us. They just practiced. Practice makes you better. They got the rhythm down and everything."
By season's end, Goodrich finished a respectable fifth of 14 teams in the MHSAA Regional at The Emerald in St. Johns, with Taylor Harding qualifying individually for the finals.
It was a great start for a team that didn't exist when the season started.
But there would be much more in store for the Martians in 2015.
In its first full season, Goodrich entered the postseason ranked No. 7 in Lower Peninsula Division 3 and qualified for this weekend’s MHSAA Final in East Lansing by placing second in a tough regional tournament at Holly Meadows Golf Course in Capac.
Goodrich finished only two shots behind third-ranked Cranbrook Kingswood, the Division 3 runner-up the last three years, and 29 shots ahead of ninth-ranked Powers, which failed to qualify for only the third time in the last 25 years.
"Going from nowhere to top 10 in the state is phenomenal," Sydni said. "We have a tough division. It's smaller, but you've got a lot of good girls who can compete. When we saw that we were ranked, we said, 'This is something special. Let's take advantage of it.'"
The Martians have exceeded all reasonable expectations for such a fledgling program, but they aren't settling for just showing up at Forest Akers West Golf Course.
"I think it's awesome we're going as a team," senior Taylor said. "We have one of the best teams. I'm so excited. I want to win so badly. I think we could definitely win; I really do believe that. If everyone's on their game and everyone puts in enough time and effort, we really could."
The Harding sisters led Goodrich to the finals, tying for first place with 78s in the regional before Taylor won a one-hole playoff.
"I definitely wanted to win," Taylor said. "If I had to come in second to anybody, I would gladly have it be her — and vice versa."
"At first, it was nerve-racking," Sydni said. "Then we got up to the first tee and we were like, 'Whatever happens, happens. I'm happy if I win; I'm happy if you win. So let's just go out and play, pretend it's just us messing around.'"
Having two outstanding golfers at the top of the lineup certainly helps, but the Martians wouldn't be going to Forest Akers West as a team this weekend without massive improvement by girls who had little to no golf experience before last fall.
"The reason for our success this year isn't because of Sydni and Taylor; they've always been good," Bescoe said. "It's the work ethic of the rest of the team, the way they strove to bring themselves to what Sydni and Taylor are. They're close. Sydni and Taylor improved by a few strokes, but the other ones improved by dozens of strokes. I'm so proud of them."
The most notable success story is senior Megan Reimel. Reimel shot in the 140s last year, but worked on her game and shot 83 to finish 11th in the regional and third on Goodrich's team. Senior Aaron Monroe shot 91 to place 17th in the regional. Freshman Elizabeth Gibbs' 94 didn't count in the team score, but she was still in the top half of the field, placing 24th out of 54 players.
"We started last year, and we were just happy to have five players, to be totally honest," Taylor said. "This year, I'm so happy that our third and fourth golfers have really picked it up. Really, everyone's improved. We're the only ones who played golf. We recruited softball players and volleyball players."
The only Goodrich player with high school golf experience before the formation of the team was Taylor Harding, who spent her freshman and sophomore years on the boys golf team. She made the Martians' varsity lineup for districts and regionals as a sophomore.
"I was younger and the boys were definitely intimidating," she said. "The distance helped me coming to the girls team. I think I'm better with the rules. That was a big thing for boys season."
Taylor Harding is also the only Goodrich player with experience in the MHSAA Finals. She finished eighth individually last year, rebounding from a first-round 86 to close with a 78.
"I was very nervous, but it ended up being really well worth it," Taylor said. "I learned a lot about myself and my golf game. I definitely improved. Just being there with all the girls who are your skill level is extremely helpful. It's always better when you play with someone better than yourself. I really wasn't expecting anything out of it. I just wanted to play the best I could, go out there and play."
Bescoe isn't concerned that his other four golfers have no experience in finals.
"I don't think it matters," he said. "They're fearless. I think the other schools who haven't been there may be at a disadvantage, but our girls have the head for it. They're fearless. They go get it."
Perhaps Goodrich's rapid rise shouldn't be such a surprise. Goodrich is a golfing community, with a public course and country club within the school district's borders. Boys golf has been a strong sport at the school for years, as the Martians won the 1977 MHSAA Class C championship and have finished in the top 10 on 24 occasions.
As an athletic program, Goodrich has won seven MHSAA championships across three girls sports since the start of the 2002-03 school year.
The goal for Bescoe is to keep the program growing after the Harding sisters graduate. Goodrich has 10 players on its team.
"It's always a goal to build and grow," he said. "Our objective this year is to grow the program. We have to get younger kids involved in order to keep this success going. Our going to the state tournament will hopefully inspire some of the other kids to jump on board."
Regardless of how the Martians perform this weekend, Bescoe has reasons to be proud of his players beyond their talent on the golf course.
"My favorite part about the girls is how nice and polite they are," he said. "After every tournament, as a group they go up and thank the other coach, thank the staff in the pro shop. That really is what makes me most proud of them. They realize that every golf course they play on, someone is letting them play on it for free. I'm glad they realize that."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTO: Goodrich’s players stand together in front of the scoreboard after last week’s MHSAA Regional, from left – junior Sydni Harding, senior Megan Reimel, senior Taylor Harding, senior Aaron Monroe and freshman Elizabeth Gibbs. (Photo courtesy of Renae Reimel.)
ADRIAN – Avery Sluss picked up a golf club for the first time her freshmen year at Adrian Lenawee Christian. Now she’s an all-state golfer.
Sluss started playing basketball because it was a way for her and her older brother, Gavin, to connect. She’s now the leading scorer on the Cougars basketball team a year after receiving all-state recognition.
Everything she touches seems to turn to gold. She will return to the soccer field in the spring already with her college plans in place. She signed recently to play goalkeeper at Indiana Wesleyan University.
“I’ve learned so much from sports,” Avery said. “It teaches me a lot about life.”
Her coaches call her a self-motivated athlete, quiet leader and someone dedicated to her faith, her teammates, and academics. She is a 4.0 student and has played four years of varsity golf, basketball, and soccer. She’s earned all-state recognition in all three sports.
“She is very self-motivated,” said first-year Lenawee Christian girls basketball coach Emilie Beach. “She doesn’t miss workouts or practices. She pushes herself hard. She forces others to rise (around her).”
Sluss is in her fourth season on the Lenawee Christian varsity basketball team. This year her role changed from mostly a defensive specialist to scorer.
Beach said Avery hasn’t changed her positive attitude with the changes in her role on the team. She has a high basketball IQ, Beach said, which helps her on the court.
“It can be tough and frustrating, but she comes in with a great attitude each day and leads her teammates,” Beach said. “She is a quiet leader who leads by example. She is hardest on herself, and that’s where a lot of her motivation comes from.”
The Cougars have had great success on the basketball floor the last several years, and Sluss has been part of it. She’s played alongside all-staters and played at the Breslin Center. She started and played 20 minutes in last year’s Semifinal loss to Plymouth Christian Academy.
This season she’s averaging 14.5 points a game, with 16 3-pointers, and has scored at least 17 points four times.
“It’s very different, but I like the role I’m in now,” she said. “Now, it’s like you have to score. I’ve accepted it. I’m just trying my best to fulfill that role for my teammates.”
Sluss sat out the fall travel soccer season while she was recovering from a slight back injury. But she was able to hit the golf course. She shot a two-day total of 186 at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Final, helping the Cougars finish second as a team. A year earlier Sluss shot an 89 and 87 and helped the Cougars finish fourth overall.
Not bad for someone who didn’t pick up a golf club until just a few years ago.
“Golf was new to me my freshman year,” she said. “Some of my friends said I should try it, so I did. I went to the range maybe one or two times before I started to play. I’ve loved it.”
As far as sports goes, soccer was her first love. She started playing at the age of 4 when a neighborhood dad gathered a few girls together and formed a team.
“We started playing in the back yard,” she said. “I’ve been playing soccer ever since. My first travel team was when I was 7.”
Sluss first started thinking about playing college soccer when she was in kindergarten.
“I’ve always wanted to play soccer in college,” she said. “I’ve dreamed about that. I’ve spent so much time on the sport that it would be silly not to. I want it to pay off with college.”
She used to play multiple positions but turned to goalkeeper at the age of 12.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “There are a lot of little things. The mental part of being a goalkeeper is important.”
After being named to the coaches association all-state third team last year, Sluss is primed for a big season this spring, especially with her college choice behind her.
“It is a strong Christian college, which was important to me,” she said. “It’s a lot like Lenawee Christian. Everyone on the soccer team was great when I met them, and the girls are so nice.”
Sluss has become adept at mixing sports with academics and life.
“Balance is a big issue,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, especially doing two at a time.
“My whole family, my parents (David and Kristen), they always push me to be the best I can be. I owe them a lot. Even my little sister (Addie) pushes me to do my best.”
Avery’s family moved from Toledo to the Adrian area several years ago, and the two perfectly complement to each other.
“Lenawee Christian has been a great fit for me,” she said. “All of the people are awesome, and I have grown in my faith here.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Avery Sluss gathers up the ball while playing keeper for Lenawee Christian’s soccer team. (Middle) Sluss puts up a shot during last season’s Division 4 Semifinal at Breslin Center. (Below) Sluss plants a chip on the green. (Photos courtesy of the Lenawee Christian athletic department.)