By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
It’s complicated finding just the right word to describe what Shepherd’s girls golf program has accomplished over the last three seasons.
Before the fall of 2015, there was no Shepherd girls golf program. That August, it held its first practices ever, and two people in the entire program had some golf knowledge coming in. Prout herself was not one of them – she wasn’t a big golfer at the time, although now she loves the sport.
How can she not with all her team has enjoyed so quickly? As this September came to a close, Shepherd won its second straight Tri-Valley Conference West championship – earning the first MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” award for the 2017-18 school year. The Bluejays added their first Regional title Wednesday and are ranked No. 9 in today’s Lower Peninsula Division 4 coaches association poll.
“I have an extremely hard-working bunch of girls. They play all summer and then they are in a simulator in the winter; they have their hands on golf clubs a lot,” Prout said. “Other than that, I would tell you they have great chemistry. They’re hard-working, they’re great students, really good people, and they are enjoying golf.”
Shepherd shot an aggregate team score of 929 over five TVC West jamborees this fall, averaging out to 186 strokes per nine holes and 46.5 per player whose scored counted toward the total. The Bluejays shot a 410 in Wednesday’s rainy gloom at home course Maple Creek to finish 16 strokes ahead of reigning Regional champ Frankenmuth and move on to next weekend’s Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals.
Three Bluejays, all juniors, placed among the top 10 at the Regional, which was astounding considering again that those golfers were incoming freshman the first year of the program. In fact, junior Maggie Bryant was the catalyst in the team’s formation, making initial contact with the athletic department about starting a team. Prout, now in her 30th year teaching in the district, also coaches softball and coached cheerleading a while ago, and took on the golf program in large part because no one else showed interest.
Shepherd had nine golfers the first year and 10 last season. The Bluejays then graduated four off the team that not only won that first league title but made the MHSAA Finals and finished 15th in LP Division 4 last fall.
This season there are six players, but they’ve become good ones – lone senior Adri Bush, juniors Bryant, Morgan Yates and Olivia Raymond and freshmen Maddie Skeel and Georgia Kusbel. As a group, they’re talented and busy; Yates also plays volleyball, while Skeel is a likely all-conference cross country runner and Kusbel runs cross country and plays high-level club ice hockey in addition to golfing in the fall.
Four players are shooting in the low to mid-40s on average; Yates shot an 18-hole 96 to take third at the Regional and Raymond was fourth at 99, while Bryant was ninth at 105.
Again, only two players had notable knowledge of the game before two years ago. So on the first day in program history, Prout started with fundamentals. She took some of what is taught in the local youth program, and a graduate of Shepherd’s boys golf team came in and taught basics. Prout, with the help of her coaching colleagues in the TVC, learned and taught the many rules of the game, and Shepherd’s boys program welcomed the girls into one big family. (The boys team won the Class C-D championship all the way back in 1970 and also has had recent success winning its Regional this past spring.)
“I put a lot of people in front of them that were knowledgeable,” Prout said. “We had a lot of help along the way from past coaches who were on the staff years ago. I’ve taken them to different courses to play, but also to be instructed by the youth programs. I’ve learned just as much as my girls.”
And now the Bluejays are passing it forward. Clare has a first-year team this fall, and Prout said see the Pioneers this fall was like looking in a mirror.
Shepherd offered its knowledge and anything else, paying it forward just as so many did in getting Prout’s program off and golfing.
Her athletes are a little tired now, she admits, from playing a lot of golf to this point in the season. But the Bluejays surely have two more great rounds left in them this fall with another incredible opportunity to accomplish success seemingly years ahead of schedule.
“Years and years and years ago, one of my players, Morgan Yates, her mother played with the boys on the boys golf team, and I coached her in a different sport,” Prout said. “Now her daughter, they’re building something here. These girls are the foundation of what’s to come in the future, and I tell them every day how special it is – and it really is.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Shepherd’s girls golf team poses with its championship trophy after winning a Regional title Wednesday. (Middle) Shepherd girls golf coach Julie Prout, left, and lone senior Adri Bush. (Photos courtesy of Shepherd’s girls golf program.)
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.)