Freeland 'Family' Ready to Charge Again

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

April 18, 2018

Winning MHSAA championships runs in Mackenzie Stroebel’s family.

Her sister Lindsay won a basketball title at Saginaw Nouvel, while her mother Dawn did the same at Carrollton.

After coming tantalizingly close in each of the past three seasons, Mackenzie Stroebel is ready to continue her family’s streak with her other family the Freeland girls soccer team.

“Ever since we lost (in the 2017 Division 3 Final), that’s all I really thought about, is getting there and winning it this year,” Stroebel said. “My mom and sister, they won state championships in basketball, so it makes me want to go that far and win it. Seeing how the community supports everyone, it’s just a good feeling. It would make some school history for us, because no soccer team has ever done it. That’s what I’m striving for, to help make history within our school.”

The Falcons have already made plenty of school history over the past four years, seeing an unprecedented run of success under coach Lauren Kemerer. Since Kemerer took over prior to the 2014 season, Freeland has gone 83-9-4 (including a win in its lone game this season), winning four straight Regional titles, which resulted in four straight Division 3 Semifinal berths. The 2014 Regional title was the first in program history.

“It took a lot of restructuring, and establishing my views and my beliefs in soccer,” said Kemerer, who played collegiately at Schoolcraft College and Saginaw Valley State University. “Not that the coach before me was doing things wrong. But when I came in I said, ‘Listen, this is a clean slate,’ and revamped everything. I kind of put my spin on things, my views, and how I believe athletes should be dedicated to the sport, the team and the school.”

Thanks to Kemerer’s approach of showing rather than telling, the girls quickly bought in. That, combined with a strong soccer community in Freeland, led to quick results.

“The really great thing about the Freeland community is all these girls have played with each other and on the same team while they were growing up,” Kemerer said. “The relationship they have on and off the field, they’re pretty much inseparable. It makes the community and team a really tight-knit family.”

With the loss of a strong senior class, including all-state midfielders Michelle Herring and Jessica Piper, the Falcons hope that strong community can lead to a quick integration of the underclassmen on their roster.

Despite the fact outdoor practices have been at a premium thanks to the weather, the Falcons feel that integration is coming along nicely.

“I think the biggest thing with underclassmen is they are nervous, so as soon as they feel comfortable and calm with those nerves of playing at the varsity level, they’ll be successful,” Stroebel said. “Our team is really close, so that helps, too. Most of the underclassmen that are varsity this year got pulled up for tournaments last year. We know them, we all walk the same halls, so you see them pretty much every day.”

There is plenty of talent returning to help those underclassmen and take the pressure off them. Stroebel was a first-team all-state forward a year ago, while junior forward Autumn Kloha was second-team all-state and senior keeper Alexa Walker earned honorable mention.

“We have a really young team, but we’re going to be solid this year again,” Kemerer said. “Even though we’re really young, we have a lot of talent.”

The veterans on the team have set a goal of winning the Division 3 title. That’s not uncommon, of course, but for Freeland it’s not overly ambitious. It’s also different than a year ago.

In 2017, the Falcons set a goal of defeating three-time reigning champion Hudsonville Unity Christian, the team that knocked them out in the Semifinals in 2015 and 2016.

It was a big goal, and one Freeland accomplished but in the Semifinal, one game short of winning it all. Without Piper, who was injured in the Semifinal win against Unity Christian, and with their season goal completed, Freeland found it difficult to keep up with a strong Flint Powers team.

“Going into the game, we kind of already were set because (defeating Unity Christian) was our goal,” Freeland senior Hannah Doran said. “I don’t think we were really prepared for it, because we had prepared for the Semifinal game. We had our hearts in it, but I don’t think we were all there for the last game.”

The 4-0 loss was a learning experience, however, as Freeland was able to see what was needed to compete for a title. So far, Kemerer has seen a determination to match that.

“They know what it takes now to be at that level,” Kemerer said. “They were just crushed last year after they lost. I told them, ‘This game is going to be a big game; it’s faster paced.’ Getting a taste of knowing what it takes to win at that level was good for them. They’re hungry. They’re very much hungry for that title.”

With the goal in place, and a plan to get there, the Falcons are ready to make history for the Freeland family.

“It would make school history, first of all,” Kloha said. “I would just feel accomplished winning a state championship. That’s what I’ve been working for my whole high school career and through travel, to win a state championship.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Freeland’s Mackenzie Stroebel (24) carries possession upfield during last season’s Division 3 Final against Flint Powers Catholic. (Middle) Autumn Kloha prepares to pull up for a shot at Powers’ goal during the finale.

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.)