Brighton Golf Finds Championship Mix

October 15, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

BRIGHTON – When Paul Parsell considers what each of his players brings to the Brighton girls golf program, he can’t help but think about the food.

The Bulldogs’ moms have fed the team incredibly well this season, and that contribution isn’t lost on the sixth-year coach.

The right ingredients make the difference – and it just so happens these moms are fueling what could end up the most accomplished team in Brighton golf’s storied history.

This season’s team is an interesting mix of veterans, newcomers, phenoms and self-made standouts. And the Bulldogs hope it’s a winner as they try to cook up their first MHSAA championship beginning Friday with the first round of the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final at The Meadows at Grand Valley State University.

Brighton has never finished among the top two at an MHSAA Final, but enters this weekend having won all but two of its events and ranked No. 3 in the final LP Division 1 coaches poll.  

“It was very fun to see it all come together," said Allie Erkkila, the lineup’s lone senior. 

"Our skills are up to par. It's just up to our mental game. Our team is very close, and I think that if we keep a level mindset, we can do our personal best."

Erkkila’s perspective is a unique one on a team filled with them. Start with the top seven players.

There’s the veteran: Brighton finished fifth in Division 1 in 2012 and 12th in 2013, but didn't make last year's MHSAA Final. Erkkila is the only member of the team who has played in the final tournament of the high school season – she was in the lineup for the first round in 2013.

And the athlete: Now-sophomore Heather Fortushniak joined the lineup last season and shot the team’s second-lowest regional core. She’s the team’s best all-around athlete; she played hockey and tackle football growing up and also plays basketball at Brighton. This fall she’s become a more polished golfer, giving the team a strong third player behind a top two that can match any in the state.

The next in line: Freshman Annie Pietila is the middle daughter of five of what could be considered Brighton’s first family of golf. Her older sisters Hannah and Emmie both play at the University of Tennessee and were regulars among the top 10 at their MHSAA Finals. In Annie’s high school debut, at the Traverse City Central Invitational in August, she set Brighton’s school record for 18 holes with a 68.

The standout who gave high school a try: Pietila’s score was tied a week later by a player also making her high school debut. Junior Julia Dean was a veteran of the American Junior Golf Association and already has committed to play collegiately at the University of Baylor. She said she’d always wanted to play on the high school team too, but couldn’t make it work with her schedule. This fall, she could – and joined the team a week in, shooting her 68 to win Brighton’s Coach Miller Invitational.

The elite gymnast: Freshman Autumn Blaney had ascended to Level 10 as a club gymnast before deciding to give golf a try, and that competitiveness has transferred over to a sport she’s played for only six months. Blaney has improved so quickly the Bulldogs used her 84 at their Regional.

And don’t forget 6 and 7: Sophomores Sophia Lowe and Emme Darkowski came to tryouts a year ago shooting in the 120s. Their averages have fallen into the low 90s and they’re pushing hard enough to make the lineup that Blaney had to defeat them in a nine-hole match last week to earn the fifth spot at the Regional.

They lead the way: Parsell has four children ages 6 down to 1 who easily could’ve been reasons for him to step away from the program – if he didn’t consider the team an extension of his family and his oldest hadn't been hanging out at practices since he was 18 months old. A major help has been the addition of assistant Jimmy Dewling, a former Brighton standout who played at Michigan State and returned to coach last fall. During matches they focus on golf-related things like course management. But just as important is the team bonding they foster to make the blend just right.

Dean averages 71 strokes for 18 holes, Pietila 79 and Fortushniak 84. Although maybe not this formidable, the Bulldogs have had similar strength at the top in the past – along with the older Pietilas, Jennica Long is a freshman playing at Florida Atlantic and Nicole Meyer plays at Hope College and three days ago was named Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Women’s Golfer of the Week.

But the biggest difference in this title hunt could be the players carding the fourth and fifth scores.

“What’s shown up for us is the growth of our program. We have really seven golfers that can play, and our five, six, seven probably could be top five for a lot of teams,” Parsell said. “I know a lot of teams out there struggle at four and five, and even three. To have that on our team makes it more competitive. They’re battling for position. You usually do that in college. We’re doing that here.”

And doing so together, which makes this a different and worthwhile experience for players like Dean and Pietila who were used to golf as an entirely individual sport. 

“It’s been cool to have that camaraderie with the team and travel with the team, and everything is more of a team effort, which I really like and enjoy,” Dean said. “It’s different in golf; you’re not out there helping your own team. But it just motivates you to do that much better because you’re playing for your team.”

Brighton finished sixth at that Traverse City Central tournament before she joined. But the Bulldogs then won all of their matches and tournaments until the Oct. 1 Kensington Lakes Activities Association final at Pontiac Country Club, where they shot 345 to finish third – seven strokes back of No. 7 Plymouth and one back of Division 2 No. 4 South Lyon. Brighton came back a week later and won its Regional with a 317, 10 strokes better than No. 4 Novi.

The late Bill Miller laid much of the program's foundation during 28 seasons before he died in 2009. Parsell said he's worked to build on Miller's work, taking a top-10 team to one that can contend annually among the top three. 

The Bulldogs made runs at the top with Annie Pietila's older sisters, who have visited practices twice this season and continue to cheer on the team as it goes for the ultimate accomplishment. 

“They still love the team and they love the coach. They didn’t have a season quite like this, but they had good seasons too,” Annie Pietila said. “They think it’s great I get to experience this.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Brighton’s varsity golfers, from left, Autumn Blaney, Heather Fortushniak, Annie Pietila, Julia Dean, Allie Erkkila, Sophia Lowe, Sydnee Ellingson and Emme Darkowski. (Middle) The players pose with their regional trophy, coaches Jimmy Dewling (left) and Paul Parsell (right). (Photos courtesy of Brighton girls golf program.)

3-Sport Standout Sluss Gives Lenawee Christian All-State Boost for Every Season

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

January 11, 2023

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.

Southeast & BorderSluss 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.

Sluss puts up a shot during last season’s Division 4 Semifinal at Breslin Center.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.”

Sluss plants a chip on the green. 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 [email protected] 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.)