By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – The final kicks of 2015 came down to gut feelings for Richland Gull Lake goalkeeper Regan Troff.
She closed her eyes and said a prayer. And then she made saves that extended one of the most impressive championship runs in MHSAA girls soccer history.
After 100 minutes of scoreless play Friday, this season’s Division 2 Final came down to a shootout between two-time reigning champion Gull Lake and Fenton – which was seeking its first MHSAA title in any sport since winning in softball in 1993.
Troff, the team’s first-year starting keeper, considered how her team would react if she succeeded or failed – before saving two of three Fenton kicks as the Blue Devils won the shootout 4-1 and the game 1-0 at Michigan State University’s DeMartin Stadium.
“I was just thinking about how much I love my team,” Troff said. “There’s no better feeling than knowing you have a group of 24-something girls who love you no matter what, whether you mess up, don’t mess up or save the game. They’re always going to be there, and you always have them to fall back on.”
There wasn’t much falling down this spring as the Blue Devils finished 25-1-1 despite graduating a strong group of seniors after last season’s repeat. Gull Lake became the eighth team to win at least three straight MHSAA girls soccer championships (and sixth program; Madison Heights Bishop Foley won three straight on three occasions.).
Troff replaced one of those graduated stars, keeper Maggie Harma, who had 18 shutouts during both the 2013 and 2014 seasons and played in net as a freshman at Wayne State University.
Troff spent part of Thursday’s practice talking with Harma and listening to her mentor’s final words of advice. They didn’t specifically come to mind as Friday’s game went to the shootout. But the theme was the same.
“She just told me to play with all of my heart, no matter what,” Troff said. “And whatever happens, just leave it all on the field because at the end of the day – if you win, or if you lose – you’re still a family no matter what.”
The teams had combined for 37 shots during 100 minutes of play and with each missing on a handful of scoring opportunities.
Troff had five saves and Fenton sophomore Abigail Quesnelle had 10 during regulation. The crossbars could’ve been credited with a few as well.
Gull Lake had won a shootout in the Regional Semifinal, as Troff had two key saves that allowed the Blue Devils to come back from two penalty kicks down and beat Mason.
This time, coach Jeff Corstange reminded his keeper to be patient, make her guess and go with it.
Gull Lake kicked first in the shootout, and senior Hannah Phommavongsa scored. Fenton’s first shot was saved by Troff, and Gull Lake junior Maddie Fouts sent her shot low into the net to make it 2-0. Junior Chloe Foor then scored to pull Fenton within 2-1.
But Gull Lake senior Hayley Buckhout made it 3-1, Troff saved Fenton’s next kick, and senior Annie Walbridge clinched it by connecting on the Blue Devils’ fourth penalty shot.
“Keepers tell you all the time that, oh, they can tell or you can guess it. To a certain extent you can, but you never know what’s going to happen,” Troff said. “You’re going with that gut feeling that you have, and that’s what I do, and just hope for the best.”
“You never want to lose on PKs,” Corstange added. “I talked to their goalie afterward; she played a tremendous game. And I told her that it’s not the way anyone wants to go out, and I apologized to her. PKs are never fun.”
Regardless of the loss, it was a historic run for Fenton (15-5-3). The Tigers advanced to the championship game for the first time after making the Semifinals for the third time in seven seasons.
Just a few inches here and there kept them from instead leaving with their first championship trophy. But they did finish with 11 wins over their final 13 games.
“It’s the way they play. There’s not a team that played harder than us all year,” said Fenton coach Matt Sullivan, who finished his 11th season. “The way these girls treat each other is just so special. I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve never been around anything like this.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gull Lake players celebrate after a score during Friday’s shootout. (Middle) Fenton’s Brianna Costigan (20) pushes the ball ahead with Kenzie Harney (11) among those defending.
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.)