Work Paves Way for Stellar Northville Start

September 14, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Stick with it. Work hard. Have faith in yourself, and good things will happen.

The Northville girls golf team has been making good on those promises – and putting it lightly, lots of good things have come their way over the first month of this fall season.

The first MHSAA/Applebee’s Team of the Month for 2018-19 has won all six tournaments it’s played this season, including five in August, while posting incredible scores against elite competition.

That the Mustangs are succeeding isn’t shocking – they did finish fourth at last year’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final, and return five of their top six players from that team. But with a quarter century of coaching cross country and now golf, Chris Cronin knows it takes more for a high school team to reach its potential – and why it’s not just by chance that his golfers have tapped into theirs during a blistering start.

“We had 11 girls return from last year’s team. Every one of those girls took it upon themselves to really work,” Cronin said. “They worked on their swing, a lot of them have additional coaches, they played a lot of summer tournaments. They just got themselves in a position to be playing their best golf.”

Northville opened the season shooting a 304 to win the Orangetheory Fitness Invitational at Hudson Mills in Dexter – with sophomore Nicole Whatley shooting a 1-under 71 to tie for individual medalist.

Next up was the Aug. 20 Sentech Services Tournament at Kensington Metropark, and a performance Cronin called “awe-inspiring.” The Mustangs shot a 291, breaking the previous team record of 313 shot last fall, with Whatley leading the way with a 5-under 67.

“I think it was one of those days where as a team they played as good as they could possibly play,” Cronin said. “The reaction from the other players at that tournament, they didn’t have to say much. It was jaw-dropping.”

Northville went on win the Kensington Lakes Activities Association Preseason Invitational (318), Brighton’s Coach Miller Invitational (307), Saline’s Invitational (333) and last weekend added the Farmington Invitational in 305 strokes, the second-lowest team score in program history. The Mustangs also won the Mason Invitational with a 308 using a mix of players from their “A” and “B” lineups.

Cronin believes he has the deepest team in the state, and it’s a strong argument. Senior Mariella Simoncini is the lone senior among the "A" lineup, and she missed the individual top 10 at last year’s Final by a stroke. Whatley and sophomore Katelyn Tokarz and juniors Sufna Gill and Sedona Shipka all contributed to last season’s fourth-place finish at The Meadows at Grand Valley State, and freshman Megha Vallabhaneni has played her way into the top group this fall. 

The Mustangs took their seventh player to the Saline Invitational, and she finished 24th overall. All of that talent makes for a competitive atmosphere – and raises the level of play for the entire team.

In addition to the team’s 291 round, the latest individual achievement by Simoncini struck Cronin as particularly special so far. She shot a career-best 3-under 67 to lead the Farmington effort last weekend and place first individually, “and as a coach, you always want to see when the hard work pays off. She does so much for us on so many different levels with leadership and setting the tone for the girls, talking them through everything from rules … she’s awesome.”

Surely more highlights are on the way. Northville shot a 306 on Saturday to win the Top 50 Invitational at Battle Creek's Bedford Valley ahead of many of the state's best teams. The Mustangs play in arguably the toughest golf league in the state, and have one more invite at Bloomfield Hills Marian.

Regionals are in a month – kicking off an opportunity to play again for the program’s first MHSAA Finals championship.

“We talk a lot in the program about expectations, but opportunities. And we knew we’d have an opportunity to be good this year,” Cronin said. “If you wanted to be part of that opportunity, it was going to require you to do some work. And they did the work.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Northville’s Mariella Simoncini follows through on a wedge shot during play this fall. (Middle) The Mustangs’ winning lineup from one of its August events, from left: Nicole Whatley, Sedona Shipka, Megha Vallabhaneni, Katelyn Tokarz and Sufna Gill. (Photos by Debbie Stein.)

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.)