By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – A familiar name is once again among the qualifiers for this weekend’s MHSAA Division 3 Girls Golf Finals.
Grand Rapids South Christian has made annual appearances in the season-ending event and put together quite an impressive streak.
The Sailors claimed a Regional title last Wednesday and punched their ticket to the Finals for the 23rd consecutive year.
“We’ve been able to go to state for a lot of years, and that’s been awesome,” South Christian’s No. 1 player, senior Natalie Samdal said. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that no matter who is on the team we’ve worked really hard to achieve the goal of going to state.”
South Christian, which won Division 3 championships in 2007 and 2009 and has finished runner-up six times, will play at Michigan State’s Forest Akers East Golf Course on Friday and Saturday.
The Sailors placed runner-up to Macomb Lutheran North a year ago by a mere three strokes and should be in the mix again with a veteran lineup consisting of four who competed in the Finals last season: Samdal, seniors Ashley Keen and Sara VanSolkema and junior Maddie Wieringa.
VanSolkema suffered a slight knee ligament tear at Regionals and didn’t play. She’s expected to return for the Finals.
“We have a lot of returning girls from last year, and they’ve played well,” South Christian coach Ben Cook said. “Natalie is our best player and has played a lot of tournament golf, and Ashley put a lot of time in this summer and has improved a lot. Those two have led us this season.”
The Sailors, whose top five also includes sophomore Kate Hoekwater, have similar expectations for success at the Finals this year as well, although the field is filled with several talented teams.
“Last year I would’ve been disappointed if we didn’t finish in the top five, and our goal going in was to shoot around 700 and we shot exactly 700 – so that was pretty cool,” Cook said. “Obviously we would like to finish one place higher this year, but we know the competition is tough. I think we’re one of the top teams, and we will see how it plays out.”
Keen said it was important to advance to the Finals again despite key graduation losses.
“It’s a big deal for us, and we’re excited to be going again,” she said. “We were a little nervous because we lost two very good players that graduated, but I’m proud to say that we made it again.
“This is my third year on varsity, and I want this to be the best ending in a good way. It was tough being so close last year, and it would be cool if we won because we’ve put a lot of work in.”
The team also received a congratulatory tweet from another sport at the school after winning its Regional.
The football team made a short video and posted it on social media.
“I thought that was pretty cool, and I wasn’t expecting that,” Keen said. “Golf doesn’t get a lot of credit from other sports, so that was a surprise to me. I liked it, and they just congratulated us on winning Regionals and told us good luck at state.”
Samdal has been the catalyst in the program’s ability to remain consistent. As a four-year performer, she’s dropped her scores steadily and been among the Grand Rapids area’s best.
She tied for third individually at last season’s Final and will play golf next year at Davenport University.
“She’s improved every year and is a solid player all the way around,” Cook said. “She’s tough mentally as well and wants to do well. She’s driven that way.”
Samdal is vocally talented, too, and is part of the choir program at South Christian. She said both pursuits help bring out the best in her.
Sailor football has a message for the Girls Golf squad! pic.twitter.com/U0pS9vnl7f
— South Christian Athletics (@sailorsports) October 10, 2018
“I’ve been singing my whole life, and both choir and golf take a lot of practice and hard work,” said Samdal, who joined her choir in singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at an NCAA Division III basketball game. “You can’t just jump right to it. You have to work at it.”
The forecast for the weekend isn’t expected to be ideal for golf, but the Sailors are determined to conquer the elements.
“We played a practice round last weekend and that helped, but our team will fight through the cold or rain or whatever it throws at us,” Samdal said.
She is looking forward to her final high school tournament.
“I’m going to miss high school golf, but part of me is excited for college golf as well,” she said. “I don’t think it will be as emotional as it would be if I wasn’t playing more, but it will be bittersweet.
“I think we have the potential to be in the top five as a team, and possibly the top three. We will see how well we can do.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) South Christian’s girls golf team poses with its latest Regional championship trophy, won last Wednesday. (Middle) Natalie Samdal tees off during last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final. (Top photo courtesy of South Christian’s athletic department; middle by 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.)