By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Tough weather conditions are a golfer’s worst enemy. That’s particularly the case when the pressure is at its peak – like at the MHSAA Finals.
But thanks to a great first day of golf Friday, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern didn’t have to worry about the conditions, as the Huskies relied on their 1-2-3 punch of Kay Zubkus, Lilia Henkel and Anna Fay to cruise to their second consecutive Lower Peninsula Division 2 championship Saturday afternoon on the Forest Akers West course at Michigan State University.
Coach Kent Graves’ Huskies shot a two-day total of 656, beating out regional rival Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (680) by 24 strokes. Zubkus topped Northern with a score of 151. The senior beat out Okemos freshman Allison Cui on the first playoff hole to win the individual title. Both players overcame a four-stroke deficit after the first day, with each shooting a 73 to force their playoff.
“Obviously you want everyone chasing you; it takes a lot of the pressure off, maybe allows us to not press as much as maybe we would be coming from behind,” said Graves, whose team beat out Birmingham Marian for the title a year ago. “So to have that big lead after the first day, it’s tough to beat that.”
Northern fired a team score of 332 Friday afternoon, building a 17-shot advantage over Reeths-Puffer. A week earlier, the Rockets defeated Northern in Regional play, firing a state-best score of 310. But this weekend, the Huskies were just too good.
“Northern played really well (Friday). They came to play,” Reeths-Puffer assistant coach Brennan Hallberg said. “It was windy, not quite like it was today, but their top four girls all had good rounds and unfortunately our top four girls had their worst rounds of the season. We had high hopes for this weekend, but (overcoming) a 17-shot deficit is a tall order.”
Reeths-Puffer entered the tournament ranked No. 1 and was on a roll after winning the Regional title. Despite falling a little short, the Rockets by no means had a bad tournament. Senior Karina VanDuinen shot a 161, good for eighth place for the weekend. Her younger sister, Karlie, had a 168, with senior Avery Howard (172) and junior Abby Fansler (179) also scoring for the team.
Still, it was not enough to prevent the Huskies from winning their second straight – and third overall – Finals title. Henkel fired a 153, which tied for third overall with reigning individual champion Shannon Kennedy of Marian. Fay’s 162 was good for a top-10 finish.
“We won last year, and we graduated five seniors,” Graves said. “Kay, Lilia and Anna were my returners. Those three were the heart and soul of our team this year. We had five girls off the JV team come up, and they taught them how to play. They taught them how to win.”
For Zubkus, the day was extra special. The senior, who finished tied for 10th a year ago, rallied on Saturday to force the playoff with Cui. It was the third time Zubkus had played in a playoff. The first two times did not go so well. The third time was the charm.
“Last year, my good friend (Kennedy) was four shots back going into the second day, and she text me last night and said, ‘Four back’s the number. It’s a good place to be.’
“Today I was just out there trying to put up a score that I was proud of because in past state championships I haven’t really done that. It was pretty miserable out there, but I made the best of it.”
Like all the golfers, Zubkus was able to overcome the weather elements, which at times included sub-40 degree weather, hail and sleet. Twice the golfers were called off the course due to lightning and unplayable course conditions.
Finishing behind Zubkus, Cui, Kennedy and Henkel was Fenton senior Charlotte Cunaud, who shot a 156 to finish fifth overall. Rounding out the top 10 were Cailey Rooker of St. Joseph (158), Mia Sooch of Farmington Hills Mercy (159), VanDuinen, Fay and Hailey Roovers of Birmingham Seaholm (166).
Cui’s runner-up finish helped her Chiefs place third overall at 697. Mercy was fourth (724) and Marian fifth (730). Rounding out the top 10 were Fenton (731), Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (733), South Lyon (743), St. Joseph (765) and Petoskey (767).
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern holds up its championship trophy after a long Saturday in Division 2. (Middle) Okemos’ Allison Cui hits an approach during Friday’s first round. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)