By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
ELK RAPIDS – For the seniors, Elk Rapids’ 8-0 District championship win over Leland on Saturday was overdue.
“Three years overdue,” senior outside midfielder Nicole Hill said.
After losing in the District Finals three consecutive years, the unbeaten Elks broke through in convincing fashion, outscoring their three District foes by a combined 24-1 to advance to Wednesday’s MHSAA Division 4 Regional in Mount Pleasant.
“We knew we had a stronger team this year and that we could do it,” senior forward Carley Patterson said. “We dominated.”
Dominated is the appropriate word as Elk Rapids kicked it up a gear in improving to 21-0. Just a week earlier, the Elks became the first soccer team in school history – boys or girls – to finish the regular season unbeaten. That’s noteworthy, considering the boys won back-to-back Division 4 titles in 1997-98 and finished runner-up in 1989, 1995 and 1996.
“It’s a great accomplishment, but it also makes us a huge target,” girls coach Andrea Krakow said.
Elk Rapids is ranked No. 2 in the coaches’ association poll heading into its Regional opener with Ravenna. If the Elks had any doubters, they’ve been silenced.
“They’re getting their due now,” Suttons Bay coach Tom Spencer said. “I don’t think they got a lot of recognition early. I had my doubts until I saw them play (an 8-0 Elks win in mid-May). They’re the best team we played this season.
“They play solid, sound soccer. They’ve got talent everywhere. Tough backline, great attack and they move the ball all over the field. They all touch the ball and they all come at you – and keep it away from their goal.”
Need proof? The Elks have scored 115 goals and surrendered 11.
“We all work together as a team,” Patterson said. “We’re all really good friends, not just on the field, but off, too.”
“Our team is really connected,” Hill added.
It’s made for an enjoyable season for Krakow, now in her 10th year as head coach.
“This is the most talented team I’ve had,” she said. “What I like is that every girl on this team wants to be here playing soccer. Nothing else. When they show up at practice it’s like, ‘What can we do to get better?’
“Even the girls that may not get as much field time are out there supporting the others. They all share a common goal. They want to succeed.”
The Elks have won 19 of their 21 games by two or more goals. And they’ve accomplished that run facing a perennially-tough Lake Michigan Conference schedule, plus a nonleague slate that included games against three teams from the Big North Conference.
“We’ve proven ourselves,” Patterson said.
One Lake Michigan foe, Harbor Springs, is in the Regional, too. The Elks posted 3-1 and 4-3 victories over the Rams.
Krakow returned 10 players off a team that went 15-5-1 last season. She added five talented freshmen and German exchange student Friedi Hicking.
“I thought we would have a strong team, adding the incoming freshmen (to the mix),” Krakow said. “We’ve been competitive every year. We just haven’t been at the top.”
In Saturday’s District title win, the Elks limited Leland to one shot. The Comets featured the state’s all-time leading scorer in Libby Munoz.
It was a “revenge” win for Elk Rapids. Leland beat the Elks 2-1 in last year’s District Final. The two teams met earlier this season with Elk Rapids posting a 6-1 win.
“We knew we were the better team coming in, and the score showed it,” Hill said.
The 8-0 decision was the 13th shutout for the Elks, who have given up only 76 shots on goal all season.
The defense includes the Wagner sisters, Alexa and Cailey. Alexa is a senior goalie who is in her second year in the program. A three-sport athlete, she previously played softball in the spring. Cailey, a junior sweeper, is a three-year starter and the “voice” on the back line.
“She directs our defense,” Krakow said.
Freshmen Kendall Brown, Kyla Pryde and Natalie Graf are instrumental, too. Brown and Pryde play on the outside where they can use their quickness to get to the ball. On Saturday, Krakow put Graf at the top of the defense to mark Munoz.
“She normally plays outside mid, but when we have an offensive threat against us we’ll put her in that man-to-man role,” Krakow said. “She’s able to anticipate, deny the ball. We held Libby to no goals twice, so that says a lot about (Graf’s) play.”
Heather Brothers normally plays at the top of the diamond defensively, but the sophomore moved to center midfield Saturday. She’s a two-year starter.
On the attack, the Elks are led by Patterson, the girls program’s all-time leading scorer. She had three goals and an assist Saturday to raise her season totals to 42 goals and 15 assists. For her career, the senior has tallied 106 goals with close to 50 assists.
“She has a nose for the ball,” Krakow said. “She has a great shot and is a good distributor. She plays team ball. She’s very unselfish.”
Hill is the second-leading scorer with 14 goals and 16 assists. Sophomore Nikki Hayes is right behind with 15 goals and 12 assists, although she sprained an ankle Saturday.
In addition, sophomore Clare Klein is a quick, offensive-minded center midfielder, who netted two goals in the District clincher. Senior Jordan McNamara and Hicking are threats as well.
“When she gets her foot on the ball, it’s like a rocket,” Krakow said of Hicking. “We tease her because she’s never taken a left-footed shot during a game and will always try to put the ball on her right. (Saturday night) she took a left-footed shot and nailed it.”
Much like Elk Rapids has nailed this season.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: The Elk Rapids girls soccer team poses with its Division 4 District championship trophy Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Hill.)
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.)