By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
WILLIAMSTON – Flint Powers Catholic attacked Hudsonville Unity Christian’s defense Saturday with a physicality and aggression the Crusaders had not seen this spring in assembling one of the best defensive seasons in MHSAA history.
They’d given up only six goals before the Chargers’ McKenzie Speer put through a shot 2:20 into the first half of their Division 3 championship game at Williamston High. And the Crusaders didn’t respond through the rest of the first half.
“My team was just so excited. We played a little frantic,” Unity Christian senior goalkeeper Holly VanNoord said. “We had to collect ourselves.”
Winning in June has been Unity Christian’s way for more than a decade. And this rematch of the 2011 Final went along with that recent dominance.
The Crusaders scored twice in the second half and held off a number of late Powers runs to claim a 2-1 win and their seventh championship in eight seasons after falling to the Chargers in last year’s title game.
“We just kinda opened our eyes and realized something had to change,” VanNoord said. “Coach just talked to us (at halftime and said) we gotta play together. I guess that was the main key. Once we got our heads on straight, we said we aren’t going to play to lose. We’re going to play to win.”
Unity Christian finished this season without a loss, at 23-0-4. The Crusaders' seven goals against was good to tie for 13th in the MHSAA record book and second only to their 2011 team among those that played 27 games. VanNoord had 20 shutouts, tying her for fourth on that single-season list after she set the MHSAA record with 24 last season.
Powers’ goal also was the first Unity Christian had given up this postseason. But VanNoord’s defense wasn’t the only stellar one on the field. Powers (20-2-4) also hadn’t given up a goal in the postseason until Crusaders sophomore Aubrey Schierbeek tied up the score 9:43 into the second half.
The teams then traded excellent scoring opportunities. Unity Christian freshman Bethany Balcer pushed a roller under diving Powers keeper Heather Rolls with 22:05 to play. But Chargers senior Jessica Adams swooped into the box and stopped the shot.
At 16:27 to play, VanNoord turned away a run. Then Rolls did the same with 15:54 to go.
Powers senior Amanda Bubnar fired a shot hard at the goal with 7:20 left, but VanNoord deflected it over the bar. Three minutes later, Schierbeek deflected a shot to the right of the net.
Freshman Casandra Besteman made all the work pay off with 3:52 to go, taking a throw-in and with a high left leg booted the ball in for the go-ahead goal.
“We have our style. We definitely have our three up top. We didn’t get to play our possession as much as we like to. (But) congratulations to them; they really played a good game,” Powers coach Art Moody said. “It could’ve gone either way. We were just hoping it was our way.”
The teams combined for 22 shots; Rolls saved six and VanNoord saved five.
Rolls finished this season with 19 shutouts, good to tie for seventh in the MHSAA record book for one season.
PHOTO: Unity Christian goalkeeper Holly VanNoord (in orange) goes high to make a save during Saturday's Division 3 Final at Williamston High.
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.)