KENTWOOD – Elise Fennell wished that there were the traditional two days of play at last year’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.
The East Kentwood sophomore golfer shot a 74 to tie for fourth in the event that was reduced to only one day of competition due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It was a little disappointing because I always play better the second round,” Fennell said. “I really wish there was another day.”
Fennel finished four strokes behind individual champion Katie Brody of Grand Blanc. However, her performance capped off a stellar freshman season and shared a glimpse of her potential.
Fennell was the top golfer in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red, sporting a nine-hole average of 35 while winning the midseason and postseason tournaments. She also received all-region and all-state honors.
So what will she do for an encore?
East Kentwood head coach Mike Ketelaar thinks the sky’s the limit for his No. 1 player.
“It will be tough to top what she did last year because she’s already built those accolades, and she had some really great rounds,” Ketelaar said. “I’m excited to see all aspects of her game click together.”
Fennell didn’t come out of nowhere.
She picked up her first club when she was 6, and started competing competitively three years later.
Fennell won the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) Junior Stroke Play Championship when she was 13, and repeated the feat earlier this month at Forest Akers East Golf Course.
“It was nice to win after a long time because I’ve struggled the last couple years with my game,” she said. “I’ve been all over the place, so I was happy to play well.”
Playing against the best has helped shape Fennell’s game, and fuel her competitive drive.
“I just like competing and playing against the best in the state and the country, and winning is fun, too,” Fennell said. “It was a little rough when I started competing, but then it got easier.”
Ketelaar knew of Fennell’s golf prowess for a while and was anticipating her arrival to high school.
“I knew about her in my first year coaching,” he said. “She lives on our home course, and she was literally on the range for all of my practices the last few years. I knew about her pedigree when she was in sixth grade.”
Fennell admittingly doesn’t enjoy the grind of practice, but understands the benefits that come with it.
“I hate practicing, but I know I have to if I want to get better and improve,” she said. “I try to come out every day and work on something.”
While Fennell is shy off the course, she has a steely demeanor on it. It’s a part of her game that sets her apart, according to Ketelaar.
“She is such a focused competitor who plays a lot of summer tournaments and has had an array of competitive experiences,” he said. “She’s very stoic, composed and a brilliant student of the game. She is mature beyond her years in terms of her course management and her understanding of effective practice techniques, and just how she approaches the game is kind of baffling to me.”
Fennell has the unique ability of visualizing each shot.
“I just see where I want to hit the ball in my mind and hit it there,” Fennell said. “And then I go from there to my next shot. I focus on what I can do.”
Ketelaar said she shows little fear, no matter the difficulty of the course.
“She doesn’t see trouble when she plays,” he said. “She’s very confident in her visualization and lines and she doesn’t fear out-of-bounds or water. She doesn't see them, and all she sees is what she’s trying to execute. She’s very good at putting on blinders and focusing on what she needs to do. Negative outcomes don’t come into her mind.”
Fennell, who tied for second at last week’s Jenison Invitational carding a 70, has also stepped into a leadership role.
The Falcons are an inexperienced group, and Fennell shares her vast knowledge of the game with her teammates.
“I've tried to make them feel more confident being on the course and around the greens,” Fennell said. “I help them with their swings so they feel more comfortable, and I love to help people because golf is my favorite sport and what I enjoy.”
Despite her young age, Ketelaar has appreciated Fennell’s willingness to help.
“She’s really been hands-on with the other girls, which is cool as only a sophomore,” he said. “She’s taken on a leadership role and realizes being a part of a team means helping the other players improve. She’s been giving back a lot more this year.”
Fennell continues to have high aspirations for this season.
“I want to win Regionals and win state while going as low as I can,” she said.
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) East Kentwood’s Elise Fennell follows a drive. (Middle) Fennell, hitting out of the sand, is looking to build on last season’s fourth-place finish in LP Division 1. (Photos by Josh Fennell and Jim Swoboda, respectively.)
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.)