By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Two tremendous streaks will be on the line at this weekend's MHSAA Lower Peninsula Girls Golf Finals.
Muskegon Mona Shores will play for its fourth-straight Division 2 championship with four girls who were on the first three winning teams. Lansing Catholic will try to make it three straight victories in Division 4, with three girls who finished among the individual top 10 during the first two title runs.
The favorites in Division 1 and 3 are a little tougher to call, with a number of veteran teams expected to contend.
Click for links to Finals qualifiers in all four divisions. See below for some of what to expect at every tournament this weekend, and come back Saturday evening and Sunday for coverage from all four Finals.
Division 1 at Forest Akers East
Three of the top four-ranked teams have never won an MHSAA team championship, and the other – Grosse Pointe South – is the reigning champion after winning for the first time last season. The individual competition should be fierce. Champion Gabby Yurik of Rochester Hills Stoney Creek graduated, but seven of the top 10 from last season are back.
Plymouth: The Wildcats are led by seniors Kelsey Murphy and Sarah Thompson – Murphy finished third last season and made the all-state Super Team, while Thompson was a Division 1 all-state selection. Plymouth has never won an MHSAA team title, but posted a Division 1-best 330 at its Regional and is ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll.
Utica: The Chieftains also are seeking their first MHSAA championship, and enter the weekend ranked No. 2. They’re bolstered by seniors Taylor Clark and Julia Montgomery, both returning all-staters who finished tied for sixth, and eighth, respectively, at last season’s Final.
Grosse Pointe South: The Blue Devils return two all-staters from last season’s first-ever championship team – juniors Lily Pendy and Tenley Shield – plus senior Hannah Buzolits. Shield tied for sixth at last season’s Final, and Pendy missed tying for the top 10 by two strokes.
Brighton: The Bulldogs have been among favorites all season, keyed by returning all-state Super Team selection Hannah Pietila – who finished fourth individually at last season’s Final as her team placed seventh. Brighton also is seeking its first MHSAA title. Juniors Nicole Meyer and Logan Street and sophomore Jennica Long also played in last season’s tournament.
Other individuals of note: East Kentwood sophomore Sarah White was the individual runner-up last season, only four strokes off the lead. Saline junior Emily White also earned all-state honors and finished fifth individually. Holt junior Pader Her and Davison senior Andrea Richards shot sub-80 Regional rounds last week.
Division 2 at The Meadows at Grand Valley State
Top-ranked Muskegon Mona Shores can become the first Lower Peninsula girls golf team to win four straight MHSAA championships. The usual contenders will push, however, including Battle Creek Lakeview and Birmingham Seaholm. Six of the top seven individuals from last season are back, including reigning champion Elle Nichols of Okemos.
Mona Shores: Four seniors who have played on all three championship teams – Morgan Smith, Hailey Hrynewich, Britni Gielow and Kelsey McKinley – stand a strong chance at making it four straight. They shot a team-record 296 at the Meadows earlier this season. Smith finished third and Hrynewich tied for fifth individually at last season’s Final.
Okemos: The second-ranked Chieftains didn’t make the Finals as a team last season, and have never won an MHSAA title. But they’re led by reigning champion Nichols, a junior, and bolstered by seniors Marie Lazar, Ryleigh Gordon, Katy Hollis and Sydney Williams. All four seniors finished among the top 23 at the Regional; Nichols was first, with Lazar fourth and Williams ninth.
Battle Creek Lakeview: The Spartans are frequent contenders, with recent runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2009, and are ranked No. 3. Senior Danielle Little made all-state last season, and teammates Sarah Vocke, Amanda Noakes and Alex Popovich also are back after helping the team tie for fourth in 2011.
Birmingham Seaholm: Three standouts return from the team that finished runner-up at the 2011 Final, and it added freshman Jordan Michalak – who beat junior teammate Megan Lam in a tie-breaker for the individual Regional championship. Lam earned all-state honorable mention last season, and junior Riley Miller and sophomore Jamie Green also played big parts on the runner-up team.
Others individuals of note: East Lansing senior Kristyn Crippen finished runner-up at last season’s Final and to Nichols again at last week’s Regional. Portage Central senior Jessica Heimonen is back as an individual qualifier after tying for fifth last season, and Traverse City Central senior Courtney Dye should also be in contention again after tying for seventh in 2011.
Division 3 at Battle Creek’s Bedford Valley
The top two ranked teams have won the last two MHSAA championships – No. 1 Ada Forest Hills Eastern finished first in 2010, and No. 2 Grosse Ile took home the title last season. Past champions Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood and Grand Rapids South Christian also should be in the mix, as should Detroit Country Day – which is seeking its first MHSAA title. The individual standings will show some significant change from last season, as only three of the top 10 are back.
Ada Forest Hills Eastern: The Hawks return three players from last season’s team that finished fourth at MSU’s Forest Akers West. Senior Jordan Duvall finished third individually in making all-state, while sophomore Henna Singh and senior Anne Parlmer rounded out the team’s top three in 2011. They’re joined by two more seniors this fall.
Grosse Ile: The Red Devils are looking to repeat, and also finished Division 4 runner-up in 2010 and Division 4 champion in 2009. They graduated two players who earned all-state recognition last season, but have three more back who were part of last season’s lineup and finished among the top 13 at a tough Regional – senior Marissa Piunti and juniors Katherine Kuzmiak and Emily Bagardi.
Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood: The Cranes are looking to climb from 10th last season to their first MHSAA title since 2001, but are ranked No. 3 and coming off a Regional win over Grosse Ile and No. 4 Detroit Country Day. Four starters from last season’s Final are back in the top five, led by junior Greer Clausen – who tied for 10th individually last season – and sophomore Cordelia Chan, the Regional runner-up.
Detroit Country Day: The Yellow Jackets put three players among the top nine and four among the top 16 at the Regional at New Boston’s Willow Metropark, a great sign as they pursue their first MHSAA title. Three players are back from last season’s seventh-place team, and senior Piumi Jayatilake and junior Ellie Miller tied for fifth at the Regional.
Other individuals of note: Linden senior Julie Guckian finished sixth last season and is back as an individual qualifier. Dearborn Divine Child senior Natalie Blazo missed the top 10 last season by nine strokes, but her 75 last week was the lowest Regional score anywhere in Division 3.
Division 4 at Forest Akers West
Lansing Catholic has cruised to the last two Division 4 championships, and is the only team ranked among the top five that owns a title. The Cougars have beaten many of the much larger powers this season, with only Division 1 No. 1 Plymouth a consistent nemesis among those they’ve faced. Some of the state’s top individuals also are in Division 4, with eight of the 12 who finished among the top 10 (with ties) last season back this fall.
Lansing Catholic: The Cougars are paced by junior Jacqueline Setas and seniors Danielle Crilley and Janie Fineis, top 10 individual finishers at the last two Division 4 Finals. Crilley finished third both times. Lansing Catholic’s Regional score of 339 was the best in Division 4 by 15 strokes.
Hanover-Horton: This group of Comets got a taste of the postseason in finishing 10th last season, and returned all five players this fall including all-state honorable mention junior Megan Klintworth. She won the Regional at Cascades in Jackson as No. 2 Hanover-Horton won the team title by 31 strokes over the likes of No. 6 Jackson Lumen Christi and No. 7 Hillsdale Academy.
Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Central: Hackett has finished sixth, seventh and third the last three seasons, respectively, and is ranked No. 3 as it also seeks its first MHSAA championship. Four of the five from last season’s team are back, keyed by senior Abby Radomsky, who missed the individual top 10 by five strokes last season. She finished third at her Regional as all five Fighting Irish placed among the top 18 at Kalamazoo’s Milham Park.
Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian: The No. 4 Mustangs appear poised for a move up after edging Hackett by a stroke at the Regional and putting three players among the top six individuals. Junior Monica Koert finished second individually at last season’s Final after falling in a one-hole playoff for first place. She and senior Mallory Antor, the Regional runner-up last week, are the only players back in the lineup from last season’s eighth-place team.
Other individuals of note: Muskegon Catholic Central senior Aya Johnson tied with Crilley and Setas for third last season and is considered among the elite regardless of division. Frankenmuth senior Kaitlyn Watkins was eighth in 2011, and Farwell sophomore Bria Colosky and Ann Arbor Greenhills senior Annie Aldrich were among three who tied for 10th. Hillsdale Academy senior Elyse Lisznyia could break into the mix after shooting a 79 at her Regional last week.
PHOTO: Plymouth's Kelsey Murphy lines up a putt during the second day of last season's Division 1 Final. She finished third and should contend again this weekend.
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.)