Champ's Strong Finish Keys Escanaba Run

May 31, 2018

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA – Two past Upper Peninsula golf champions went head-to-head here Thursday, and as play stopped for a heavy downpour, the momentum made a tremendous switch after play resumed to help decide the issue.

Junior Paxton Johnson of Escanaba used the 30-minute rain delay to turn her fortunes around and claim her third straight Division 1 championship, which helped the Eskymos capture their third straight team title with a 381.

Meanwhile, the delay stopped Kaaren Liston's building momentum and basically ended the Houghton senior's charge. The Gremlins finished second at 390, a stroke ahead of Menominee.

Johnson, playing at her home Escanaba Country Club course, parred the front nine and finished with an 80. Liston, who won the Division 1 title as a freshman in 2015, shot 85 to tie Escanaba's Megan Dagenais for the runner-up score.

Home course advantage was an obvious benefit for Johnson, who lives adjacent to the fourth green and plays ECC much more often than frequently. Liston's advantage was her tremendous length of the tee, many times landing 40-50 yards beyond Johnson, who also has impressive distance.

"I didn't pay attention to how far ahead she was," said Johnson, who concentrated on playing her game and the course. "My game plan was to hit the green in regulation and make some putts. I was pretty comfortable out there."

"She basically knows where she can get into trouble and has a general idea what club to hit into each hole," said Liston, who said her extra length "kind of equals that out there somewhat."

Johnson, a southpaw who won the ECC women's championship last year, downplayed her home advantage. "Most holes here are pretty straight forward, but you have to know where to hit the ball on the greens. I don't think having knowledge of the course is that big of an advantage," she concluded.

The big advantage for Johnson came down to short-game execution. She was pretty steady all day while Liston had numerous errors on approach shots or with the putter. "I got myself in a little trouble not hitting the greens," she agreed.

"I played well, better than I shot," said Liston, playing in just the fourth meet of the weather-restricted season. "My approach shots were lacking, and I had a few blowup holes. Shots 100 yards and in definitely need work."

The turning point came after the rain delay basically swamped several holes on the back nine, where Johnson, Liston and Dagenais ended their rounds. Liston came out of the delay with a double-bogey 6 on No. 12 and a three-putt triple-bogey 6 on No. 13, putting the skids on her final high school round.

"The rain delay helped Pax out," said EHS assistant coach Jake Berlinski, referring to Johnson’s double-bogey 6 on No. 10 and a bogey-4 on No. 11 that happened as dark clouds were approaching. "She was able to regroup in the clubhouse and came out ready to fire."

With the weather arriving, Berlinski encouraged Johnson to hit her approach shot to No. 12 green after her tee shot – just before the weather horn – landed shy of the creek 155 yards from the green. "That kind of got her round started again, and with Kaaren going the other way it kind of sealed the deal," he said.

"I didn't let myself get freaked out," Johnson said of her brief slump. "I played a good, solid front nine. I was a little bit frustrated, but the key was it was just one (bad) hole and there are eight more to go so I just kept playing."

Johnson's only misstep after that came on No. 15, which had several large puddles – actually more like small ponds. She had a double-bogey 6 on No. 15.

Johnson only had two legitimate birdie attempts but missed on Nos. 1 and 7, after Liston birdied No. 1. "I couldn't quite capitalize. I mis-read them a little bit," Johnson said.

"The first 3-4 holes I kept playing solid and settled in and found my groove," she added.

Playing with Liston was beneficial, she agreed. "It definitely helped playing with her. She is such a good golfer and she pushes me. She is an amazing golfer and hits the ball a mile. I love watching her because she has such a beautiful swing,” Johnson said.

"If I play my best game and she plays her best game, there is nothing I can do. I can't play defense."

Liston said her goal was to shoot in the 70s, which began after shooting 75 in a family outing Monday at Houghton’s Portage Lake Golf Course.

Dagenais, a solid No. 2 behind Johnson during the abbreviated season, was happy and sad about her final prep round. She three-putted No. 18 for a double-bogey 7 and "I missed the last putt by this much (inches on her fingers). I wanted to take second alone," she said.

"I hit a lot of greens in regulation. I wanted my team to have a better chance of winning," she added. "My irons were awesome. I was sticking the pins."

Berlinski was happy to see the girls triumph. "To walk out with that trophy right now is pretty incredible," he told three of the girls who will be returning in spring. "Having Paxton helps when you have the medalist. The other four girls played probably as good as they have all year, and at the right time."

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) A 20-minute downpour left large ponds of water scattered around the back nine at Escanaba Country Club during Thursday's Upper Peninsula Division 1 girls golf tournament. Tourney medalist Paxton Johnson's reflection is shown as she pushes her cart on the 14th fairway. (Middle) Johnson holds up her individual and team championship medals. (Below) Kaaren Liston of Houghton watches as her chip shot tumbles toward the hole Thursday. She tied for second. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)

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.)