Final Burst Nets Unity's 9th Title

June 12, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Hudsonville Unity Christian and Detroit Country Day had played 95 minutes Friday afternoon. Bursts of speed were in short supply.

Crusaders junior Maddy VanDyke had one left – she made it, and the next few seconds felt like slow motion.

That’s how she saw her go-ahead goal with 4 minutes and 12 seconds left in the second overtime of the Division 3 Final at Michigan State University, a goal that resulted in Unity Christian claiming a 2-1 victory and its ninth MHSAA championship in a rematch of last season’s title decider.

Senior Bethany Balcer found VanDyke on a long pass as she sprinted toward the goal with two Country Day defenders in tow. VanDyke’s shot was deflected by the Yellowjackets’ keeper – but then slowly rolled toward and past the goal line as the Country Day defenders just missed catching up.

“It was perfectly placed that I could sprint and have a burst of energy, in order to go to the goal. As soon as I realized it was me and the keeper, it kinda got a little tense,” VanDyke said. “As soon as it crossed the line … (it was) just the feeling of accomplishment and amazement, joy.

“Coach just kept saying to play the corners and cross them in … and as soon as the ball was played to the corner, I feel like everyone, whether outside forward or outside mid, we got that burst of energy to want that goal and want to see that scoreboard at two to one.”

Unity Christian’s run has been nearly unprecedented. The Crusaders have won three titles in four seasons, with all nine coming over the last 11 seasons. Only Madison Heights Bishop Foley, with 12, has won more girls soccer championships.

Overtime couldn’t have been a thought for anyone who watched the first 20 minutes of regulation. Like it did for what had to be at least 90 of the 100 minutes total, Unity Christian dominated possession – until Country Day sophomore Lauren Alshab shook two defenders and launched the Yellowjackets’ first shot of the game, drilling it 21 yards and over the Unity Christian keeper’s outstretched arms into the far top corner of the net. 

Still, the Crusaders finished with 31 shots including 15 on goal. They kept firing from just about every angle unsuccessfully until junior Abby Neinhuis took a pass deep in the box with 16:55 left in regulation and punched the equalizer into the net.

Unity Christian got off seven more shots during regulation and five during the first 10-minute overtime. VanDyke’s winner was one of only two shots by either team during the final extra period.

“I’m sure the fans were on the edge of their seats. We were on the edge of our seats,” Unity Christian coach Randy Heethuis said. “The thing with Country Day, they won their last two games on penalty kicks. We really didn’t want to go there. That experience, a very good goalkeeper, not that we weren’t confident in going and doing that, but we were going to throw everything at them to see if we could get that game winner, and lo and behold we did.

“You saw a girl (VanDyke) that played 80 minutes, and she ran away from the defenders there and found a way to will it past their keeper.”

Indeed, Country Day had advanced with shootout wins over Grosse Ile in the Regional Final and Flint Powers Catholic in the Semifinal.

Sophomore keeper Isabel Nino had 13 saves as she and her crew of defenders – among them senior Jenna Staudt, sophomores Olivia Heppard and Dagny Hill, junior Naomi Hill and senior Libby Ronchetto dropping back from the midfield – repeatedly turned back runs by Unity Christian forwards who seemed to have at least a few inches of height on most of them.

“We came in as an underdog. … Our legs are gone. There’s no doubt they’re the better team, and they won the game, but I’m very proud of my athletes and everything they gave on the field,” Country Day coach Bob Bukari said. “We were just a few minutes away from going to PKs again, and I think we would’ve won them because our goalkeeper is outstanding in PKs.”

VanDyke said scoring the title-winning goal was an honor, and thanked those who have supported her during a school year that began with significant heartbreak. Her father Rod, a teacher and the girls golf coach at Grand Rapids South Christian, died Oct. 7 after he was struck by a car while riding his bike. 

He too had experienced an MHSAA championship, having led the Sailors to the Lower Peninsula Division 3 golf title in 2009.

“(I'm) just wishing that I had my dad in the stands, but I know it can’t be like that,” VanDyke said. “But I know he’s watching me, and I have a lot of people supporting me, and that’s what gets me through it.” 

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Unity Christian’s Maddy VanDyke (14) celebrates her go-ahead goal during Friday’s Division 3 Final. (Middle) Unity’s Lauren Orr (4) and Country Day’s Hannah Hansen work to gain possession.

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 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.)