By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Four seasons ago, the Rochester girls golf team missed the MHSAA Finals – a rarity for a program that has won three of the last 10 Lower Peninsula Division 1 championships and finished runner-up twice.
But 2015 was a special fall. Much to coach Jeff Haney’s surprise, the Falcons – with those same four regulars anchoring the lineup – not only made the Final but came within a stroke of winning the Division 1 championship before finishing second to Traverse City West on a fifth-score tie-breaker.
And all of that set up a championship run that culminated in a 21-stroke victory at this season’s Final at Michigan State University’s Forest Akers East, a pleasing end to a wild ride.
“Their freshman year they missed going to the state finals as a team by four strokes. Sophomore year the missed out by two strokes,” Haney said. “To go from missing out on the state finals to then going to the state finals and being within a stroke of winning, to then follow it up by winning it, it’s been quite a journey. To me, that’s what I’ll remember this team by – the incredible run.”
An incredible finish to that incredible run made Rochester the clear-cut choice as Applebee’s statewide Team of the Month for October.
The Falcons won resoundingly at Forest Akers East after shooting what’s believed to be an MHSAA girls golf tournament record 289 to win their Regional on Oct. 5 at Twin Lakes in Oakland Township.
The run was fueled by balanced contributions from all five regulars.
In the Division 1 Final, the Falcons followed two who were among the individual top 10 finishers. Senior Brooke Busse was fifth at 148, five strokes back of the lead, and senior Veronica Haque carded an eighth-place 150. However, freshman Savannah Haque (158), senior Erika Yang (163) and junior Keri Yang (166) all also finished among the top 32.
At times through the season, the fourth and fifth players in the lineup shot the second or third-best scores at tournaments, something “definitely different in terms of depth, definitely different in that they all prepared so much, played so much and worked so much to get to this point,” said Haney, who took over the program in 2006. Four of the top five missed at least one tournament this fall, and Rochester still won a number of those events.
He noted that his isn’t the type of program that generally is able to count on adding tournament-experienced newcomers every fall. When the current seniors entered high school, Haney said he knew about Veronica Haque as a likely contributor, and that Busse had played some. But sisters Erika and Keri Yang were volleyball players when they decided to play golf instead.
Savannah Haque – Veronica’s sister – gave the Falcons another strong player this fall, and combined with her four teammates allowed Haney to focus his coaching differently.
In the past, he spent more time coaching his golfers on aiming points, club selection and things experienced golfers might already know entering high school. But this fall he was able to focus on the Falcons' mental games. And mental prowess was a strength of this team – Rochester made academic all-state with a grade-point average of 3.748, which ranked 11th in Division 1, and Erika Yang received individual academic all-state honorable mention.
As one might expect, on-course accolades abounded as well. Busse was named after the season to the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association all-state Super Team, while Veronica Haque made the first team and Savannah Haque and Erika Yang earned honorable mentions.
“If we didn’t win, it seemed like the year was going to be a failure, and it’s hard to play like that,” Haney said. “And the other thing for which I give the girls credit, they played the whole season with everybody telling (them they were) the best team, and it was a lot of pressure. I felt it, and I’m sure the girls felt it, and to me (winning) was as much a relief as I was excited.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2016-17
September: Breckenridge football - Report
PHOTOS: (Top) Brooke Busse watches a drive during this season’s Division 1 Final at Forest Akers East. (Middle) The Falcons line-up during the second day of the Final, from left: Keri Yang, Savannah Haque, Brooke Busse, Veronica Haque and Erika Yang. (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.)