HUDSONVILLE – Randy Heethuis has cut his coaching workload in half.
The longtime and successful Unity Christian soccer coach announced last month that he’ll be stepping down from the boys program after 28 years at the helm.
Heethuis is still coaching the girls squad this spring, however, after a health scare last fall altered his priorities.
Heethuis suffered a small stroke following the boys season in October and underwent heart surgery in November to close a hole in his heart.
“When something like that occurs in your life, it causes you to take a step back and reflect a little bit and reprioritize things,” said Heethuis, who guided the boys to five state championships and seven Finals appearances during his tenure.
“As far as I know it’s all good and I’m feeling great, but it’s one of those medical experiences that at my age causes you to reevaluate.”
Heethuis, who turns 60 in a couple months, said he also felt the desire to spend more time with his growing family.
His fifth grandchild was recently born, with another one on the way this fall.
“Just being more accessible to spend time with them and be able to help out with them and go to their games,” Heethuis said. “That was also a big piece of the equation, and as long as I’ve been doing this it gets tougher and tougher. I just felt like all things considered, and at my age, that it was becoming increasingly more difficult for me to give 100 percent to both programs.”
“It was an extremely difficult decision, but I just really felt that this is what I was being led to and it’s been a great run,” Heethuis said. “I’ve enjoyed 28 years doing that, and over the years I’ve really been blessed to have some fine families and awesome siblings to coach.
“It was a real blessing for me to coach that long, but I just felt like someone a little younger and with more energy might have an opportunity to put their stamp on the program and to carry the torch moving forward.”
Heethuis has been asked why he decided to keep coaching the girls and not the boys.
There wasn’t any strong reasoning behind it other than he began his career coaching the girls at Unity 33 years ago.
“I coached the girls for five years before taking on the boys, and this is a nice way to bookend a coaching career,” Heethuis said. “I’m not sure how long the good Lord will bless me to continue (with) the girls, but for the foreseeable future I would like to continue in that respect. Only time will tell.”
Heethuis (502-90-52) ranks among the winningest coaches in MHSAA boys soccer history and tops the list for girls coaches (579-102-38) having also led the Crusaders girls to 10 Finals championships.
The girls opened this season with a tough 1-0 loss to a talented Hudsonville squad, but are unbeaten since.
“I was pleased with how hard our girls competed and played hard and battled, but unfortunately, we came up one goal short,” Heethuis said. “Those are the types of games, as a coach, you hope will make you better moving forward.”
Unity, which is led by returning players Morgan Scholten (goalkeeper), Brianna Rose, Jessie Postma, Jenna Schreiber, Laura Moberg, Jade Taylor, Kyah VanKoevering and Molly Vollink, reached the Division 3 Semifinals last season before losing to Boyne City in a shootout.
“Last year this group snuck up on some people and had a great year,” Heethuis said. “The only game we lost was in the state Semifinal and we were two or three minutes away from making it to the Finals.
“I think we have to try and build on that and hopefully the girls have a hunger for getting back there and wanting to do that again and take it a step further.”
Rose, a junior, believes this year's team can replicate last year's success.
"We have a lot of potential," she said. "We have great additions and returning girls on the team. So far, you can see the motivation in everyone from last season’s tough loss. Everyone on the team shows up and works hard not only for themselves, but more importantly for each other.
"We want to win another state title. Who wouldn’t? And hopefully we can make the season last as long as it can. What I think sets our team apart from the rest is the bond and hard work we do for ourselves and each other with the main goal of honoring our Lord."
The Crusaders have a balanced mix of returning players and newcomers who will attempt to keep the program’s commitment to excellence intact.
“It’s early, but the chemistry on this team is really good and it’s a fun group to be around,” Heethuis said. “We will hopefully take it one game at a time and get better as the season goes on, because there’s real potential there to get it all put together by the end of the year. We hope to do it sooner than later.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Unity Christian soccer coach Randy Heethuis and his boys team prepare for the kickoff of the 2018 Division 3 Final. (Middle) Heethuis accepts the Division 3 championship trophy with his girls team in 2016. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)