Johnson Joins Legends, Maroons Make Legacy

May 29, 2019

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

HARRIS – Paxton Johnson only achieved half of her goal in her final high school golf match here Wednesday, but it was a special half.

The Escanaba High School senior won her fourth straight Upper Peninsula Division 1 golf championship to join two other four-time winners. The southpaw posted a sharp 4-over-par 76 at Sweetgrass Golf Club, which next month will host its ninth straight Symetra Tour women's professional golf tourney.

Menominee High School dashed Johnson's second goal by winning the team title, ending Escanaba's three-year title reign. The Maroons shot a dazzling 385 to finish a whopping 27 strokes ahead of the Eskymos.

"I wanted the team to win so bad," said Johnson. "I can honestly say I wanted the team win more than the individual win. I tried to encourage my teammates and play as best I can and try to pull it off."

Johnson, who has received a golf scholarship to Northern Michigan University, joins Marquette golfers Kendra Palmer (1996-99) and Carley Saint Onge (2008-11) as the only four-time champions. "It is an honor. I really look up to both of them," she said.

"It is amazing. It was a really great four years," Johnson said as she relaxed outside under the best spring conditions to date, sunshine and 81 degrees.

She finished 11 strokes ahead of runner-up Emma Hofer of Menominee and knew she was the heavy favorite but pushed the pressure to win aside. "I was competing against myself. I knew if I stayed out of trouble and out of the bunkers I would be okay. I wasn't thinking of anything else, just thinking about one shot at a time," she said.

Johnson overcame a pair of consecutive short putt misses – for par and birdie – on holes 12 and 13, respectively. "I tried not to get too discouraged and tried to let it go," she said, still visibly perturbed at those miscues after the round ended. "I didn't let it get in my own head. But if I had capitalized around the green I would have played much better."

She also missed a good opportunity on the short No. 14, leaving her tee ball short-left and then chipping over a bunker to the back fringe before two-putting for par. "I'm not upset with par, but the hole should be a birdie. But pars are good. You can't get too mad at par," she said, although it was obvious she was still peeved at herself later.

Johnson, who won the Upper Peninsula Ladies Golf Association crown last year, stayed within herself most of the balmy day by following her primary creed. "I was kind of in a zone. I focused on my game. Swinging freely is my best thing," she said.

Escanaba coach Brian Robinette said Johnson "is fundamentally as sound as any high school player." He also said the "consistency, the way she hits the golf ball" is a key. "She is a high IQ golfer. She can regroup (from a bad stretch) and can leave the past in the past. You rarely see her follow up a bad shot with another bad shot."

He is also impressed with the way "she can compress the golf ball and works right through the bag, driver to wedge."

Two of her playing partners, Emma Hofer of Menominee and Morgan Rhodes of Marquette, copied Johnson's approach by paying attention to their own shots and were not overwhelmed by her dominance. 

"I know she is better than me. I'm totally fine with that," said Hofer, a frequent opponent the past four years. "I try to get closer to her and if I'm close to her I'm fine."

Rhodes said playing with Johnson helps her: "It makes me a better player playing with someone more advanced. I just don't compare myself to them."

Menominee has won 15 U.P. girls titles, but this was the first since 2008 and the first for coach Tony Hofer, who has two daughters (Emma and Josie) on the team. 

"All year we've had all five girls score well. Different girls step up and do something good at every meet," he said, noting four seniors have led the way as they chased Escanaba. "We were not very good four years ago, but they stuck with it. This year we knocked off a handful of strokes here and there."

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PHOTOS: (Top) Paxton Johnson of Escanaba won her fourth straight MHSAA Finals title Wednesday at the Upper Peninsula Division 1 golf tournament at Sweetgrass Golf Club in Harris. Johnson, the third U.P. girl with four straight titles, posted a 4-over-par 76. Johnson tees off on the par-3 island green, No. 15, which she parred. (Middle) The Menominee Maroons won the Upper Peninsula Division 1 team title. The team includes, front row from left: Maddy Derusha and Emma Hofer; standing from left, Arikah Bellisle, Josie Hofer, coach Tony Hofer, Olivia Badker and Emma Antilla. (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.)