Northville Taking Aim at Record Streak
By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half
September 2, 2020
As we collectively cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, individually we search for some semblance of normalcy.
For athletes like Katelyn Tokarz of Northville, participating in athletics has allowed, if only temporarily, for a bit of respite from the uncertainty of living in the midst of a pandemic.
Tokarz enters her fourth season as a member of Northville’s girls varsity golf team. She is relieved as well as thankful to have the opportunity to compete once again, knowing many of her classmates, and thousands of other students statewide, are not so fortunate.
“I was concerned (that) we wouldn’t play,” Tokarz said. “We were stressed out that (the season) wouldn’t happen. I’m just grateful to have a season. Anything is better than nothing.”
Tokarz has been one of coach Chris Cronin’s top players from day one, and this season she and her teammates have the opportunity to accomplish something special.
Northville won its first MHSAA Finals title two years ago by 31 strokes, and the Mustangs were dominant again in capturing their second consecutive Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship in 2019. Should Northville make it a three-peat, it would join Grand Blanc (Division 1, 2004-06) and Kalamazoo Central (Class A, 1994-96) as the only programs to win three consecutive titles in the MHSAA’s top division/classification.
Northville won last year by 32 strokes ahead of second-place Grosse Pointe South, and Cronin returns five of his top seven golfers. Tokarz, junior Megha Vallabhaneni and sophomore Samantha Coleman all are back after being named to the Division 1 all-state first team by the coaches association.
Cronin is in his fifth season as head coach; he’s also coached the boys program for the past five. But he’s hardly new to the program and athletics, in general, at Northville. He coached cross country for 23 seasons before switching to golf. He also served as an assistant golf coach and was part of the program when Wes Gates captured in the LPD1 individual title in 2009.
In Cronin’s second season with the girls golf program, the Mustangs placed fourth at the 2017 Final – giving us a glimpse of what was to come.
“The first year (2018) we won it, we seemed to consistently win tournaments throughout that season,” Cronin said. “I’m big on statistics, and our margin of victory was 15 strokes.
“We knew we had the talent. We just didn’t want to get in our own way. We had a lot of depth, which is unusual for most programs. We had girls who didn’t play who could have played for other programs.
“I got a little lucky last year. I had two seniors who hadn’t played well during the regular season. But they continued to improve, and by the time the (MHSAA) tournament came around they hit their stride.”
Those two players were Sedona Shipka, who tied for ninth individually at the 2019 Final with a 158 (79-79) and Sufna Gill, who was second on her team scoring 161.
As good as Northville was the past two seasons, Cronin said this year’s team, while not as deep, could be better. Even if this is true, Cronin said winning the title this year will be more challenging that during the past two.
“There are a number of teams that are better than they were a year ago,” he said. “Rochester Adams (seventh last season) has a lot back, and they’ve already shot 299 in a tournament. (Coach) Dan Young at Plymouth (third last season) has a solid team. When all is said and done, there are about five teams who are equal.”
Northville is off to a good start, having won two invitational tournaments (Highest Honor Invitational at Huron Meadows Metro Park and the Sentech Invitational at Kensington) with identical 306 totals.
In this undeniably unique season, Cronin said coaches must adapt and be more creative due to COVID-19 restrictions. One limitation is the number of players teams are allowed to enter in a tournament. In the past coaches could enter five, counting the top four scores. Teams are now limited to four players. Northville team dinners, a time when players bonded, are a thing of the past. And awards ceremonies have been all but eliminated to limit individual contact.
“As a coach I have a mask on all of the time,” Cronin said. “The new players have only seen my face on FaceTime.
“So many things we’ve done in the past was predicated on working closely with one another. The girls looked forward to the awards ceremonies. Now you don’t have that. They play and go home. Sometimes it takes seven hours or so before they get the results.
“That said, I feel from my heart we are fortunate to be out here. When they’re playing, that’s when they’re the most normal. They’re not thinking about COVID when they’re walking the fairways. I’ll live with the restrictions.”
Players like Tokarz are likely the least affected. Experienced players at her level compete in tournaments during the summer sponsored by the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) and others outside of school. It’s the younger players who are missing out the most.
“We work in small groups now, and we keep the groups the same every day,” Cronin said. “In the past I’d mix up the players so the younger players could be around the older girls to watch, to see how they line up putts, for example, and just watch the way they go through their routine. Not now.”
That said, the challenges are the same for everyone. Players and coaches alike must adapt and be more creative. Northville again is well on its way.
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Northville junior Megha Vallabhaneni keeps her eyes on an approach. (Middle) Senior Katelyn Tokarz sends a putt toward the hole. (Below) Sophomore Samantha Coleman follows an iron shot. (Photos by Debbie Stein.)
3-Sport Standout Sluss Gives Lenawee Christian All-State Boost for Every Season
By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com
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.
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.)