HARRIS — It took all 18 holes to determine an individual champion at the Upper Peninsula Division 1 Girls Golf Final here Wednesday.
Negaunee junior Rachel Niskanen came through with a 25-foot birdie putt on the No. 18 hole, becoming medalist for the first time with 82 strokes.
Menominee senior Madison Derusha, who narrowly missed an eagle putt on the last hole, settled for birdie and the runner-up honor at 83 on a sunny and mild day at Sweetgrass Golf Club.
“I started with par on the back nine, then I double-bogeyed the next three holes,” said Niskanen, who led by six strokes at one point on the back nine. “Both of us had bogeys. She was five down going into 11. It was really intense. I just tried to take it one stroke at a time and reminded myself that I couldn’t change the past. I just had to focus on the future.”
Escanaba was crowned team champion for the first time in four years with a 411. The Eskymos were followed by Negaunee at 417, Marquette at 422, Ishpeming Westwood with 431 and two-time reigning champion Menominee at 440.
“The girls really came through,” said Escanaba assistant coach Jake Berlinski. “Last year they were playing for the first time. This year was a little bit different. The girls made it a sport they really cared about.
“We ask a lot of these girls. They miss a lot of school, which is stressful for them. We’ve been asking them to miss two days a week for the last five weeks.”
Derusha, who plans to play golf at Michigan State University, said it was kind of a bittersweet ending to her high school career.
“It would have been nice to get the eagle, but it was still nice to get a birdie on my last high school hole,” she added. “Both of us were as nervous as could be. I have to stay as positive as I can and be proud of the way I finished.
“I will be doing club golf in my first year (at MSU), then I’ll play varsity golf as a sophomore. It will be a big learning curve.”
Westwood senior Jillian Koski, who sank a hole-in-one on No. 12 during Tuesday’s practice round, placed third with at 89 on Wednesday.
“On the front nine I had a 40,” said Koski, who will also attend MSU this fall to major in business management. “My putting was going real well, then they weren’t falling anymore on the back nine. I was nervous. I wanted to do as well as I did on the front nine.”
Escanaba junior Cierra Scott moved up two places from a year ago, taking fourth this time at 90. Iron Mountain’s Redeit Husing placed fifth with a 93.
“I’ve become more consistent with my long game,” said Scott. “My drives were pretty good today, but putting is something I need to work on. My putts weren’t very good. You’re never going to have a perfect round; you can come close, but it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get that perfect round.
“I wasn’t playing my best golf in the beginning of the season and was getting down on myself. Then, I kind of changed my mentality. Going into the season, winning the team title was top priority. Our team has improved so much.”
Berlinski often refers to Scott as “Captain.”
“Last year, we weren’t sure if we’d have a full team,” he said. “Cierra earned that name. She recruited some players and brought them along with her. She had some early-season struggles and shot scores that were uncharacteristic for her, but good players find a way to get through that stuff and Cierra played her best golf in the end.
“This is a nice feather in her hat for somebody who’s aspiring to be a college golfer. She’ll play somewhere. She’ll find a home.”
PHOTOS (Top) Negaunee's Rachel Niskanen tees off on No. 16 at Sweetgrass Golf Club during Wednesday’s Upper Peninsula Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Escanaba girls golf team holds up its team championship trophy. From left: Sophia Derkos, Peyton Wellman, Annika Wangrud, Cierra Scott and Maddie Wilson. (Photos by Justin St. Ours.)
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.)