Keeper Hopes to Help North Muskegon Take Championship Step

By Tom Kendra
Special for

May 26, 2021

Syann Fairfield says she won’t let anything stop her from leading her team to the Division 4 girls soccer championship.

But don’t take her word for it. Look at her actions.

The last time North Muskegon’s girls soccer team was making a tournament run, Fairfield suffered a nasty eye injury early in the second half of a 2019 Regional championship game win over Houghton Lake.

“I went down to grab the ball and took a knee to my eye,” Fairfield recalled with, of all things, a laugh. “I had to come out for a concussion test and to make sure I could see, but then I went right back in. I was not going to let us lose in the Regional Finals because I had to go out.”

Fairfield is the daughter of Jenny DeJohn and Muskegon High School football coach Shane Fairfield, so she grew up as a ball girl and water girl for her dad’s teams and says she learned about toughness and teamwork in the process.

North Muskegon, which is 14-1-1 and ranked No. 1 in Division 4, hopes that the experience of Fairfield and the team’s other seven seniors will be enough to lift the Norse to the school’s first soccer state championship after heartbreaking 1-0 Semifinal losses to Kalamazoo Christian in 2018 and 2019.

“We definitely have a special team,” said senior forward Emily Olsen, one of four senior captains along with defender Sophia Schotts, midfielder Audrey Wilson and forward Hope Johnson.

“We’ve come so close in the past. We’re giving 100 percent every day and hope that makes the difference this time.”

If the popular school of thought holds that a championship soccer team starts in the back with the goalkeeper and defense, then the top-ranked Norse might just be ready to break through.

Fairfield, who first-year head coach Caleb Parnin calls “one of the greatest athletes that North Muskegon has ever had,” is a dominant, 6-foot-1 keeper and the final line of defense for a team that has allowed just four goals all season.

North Muskegon girls soccerFairfield benefits from a pair of standout defenders in Schotts and junior Grace Vander Woude, but the real secret of this North Muskegon team is the combination of great senior leadership and up-and-coming and talented underclassmen at every position.

Fairfield, an all-state middle hitter who will play volleyball next year at Ferris State, injured her ankle late in the basketball season and missed the first several weeks of this soccer season. But she used that time to mentor freshman keeper Emma Lamiman.

The same is true at midfield, where the dominant Wilson missed time earlier this month with an ankle injury, forcing promising freshmen Spencer Zizak and Allie Jensen to be thrown into the heat of the battle.

The leaders up front are the lethal 1-2 combination of Johnson, the leading scorer with 25 goals and 16 assists, and Olsen, whose powerful right leg has produced 19 goals and 18 assists. Among the youngsters learning from those two everyday are sophomores Natalie Pannucci (11 goals, 6 assists) and Jaley Schultz and freshman Kennedi Koekkoek – who scored the most memorable goal of the season with two seconds remaining to salvage a 2-2 tie against No. 2-ranked Lansing Christian.

“When I was out, Spencer and Allie stepped up and now they’re both playing with so much confidence,” said Wilson, who was still taking it easy at Tuesday’s practice. “So, sometimes injuries help the team in the long run, but I will definitely be back and ready to go.”

The Norse suffered their only loss of the season against visiting Division 1 school Holland West Ottawa, 1-0, on April 24, a game in which Johnson did not play.

The tie against Lansing Christian came on May 17, when the Norse found themselves trailing 2-0 at halftime. Johnson cut the lead in half with a goal on a penalty kick, before the harried final moments, when Schotts put a shot on goal and Koekkoek converted the rebound just before time expired.

North Muskegon played its last game May 21, a tight 2-1 win at Ludington. With no conference tournament in the West Michigan Conference, the Norse will have an 11-day layoff before their District opener June 1.

“Honestly, we’re excited to have this extra practice time, because our coaching staff really thinks we can bring these girls to the next level,” said Parnin, who is assisted by Chris Wilson, Pete Johnson, Adam Schultz and Kim Gorbach – the program’s junior varsity and goalkeeper coach.

North Muskegon girls soccerParnin, a 2003 North Muskegon graduate who played collegiate soccer at Trinity International University near Chicago, returned home in the fall of 2019 to teach English at his alma mater. The plan was to serve a one-year apprenticeship as Ryan Berends’ assistant, before COVID-19 wiped out last spring’s season.

Parnin, who compared coaching this year’s talented team with “being handed the keys to a Corvette,” has made a point of getting more girls out for soccer. His work is paying dividends with 34 high school girls soccer players, nearly double the number from 2019, with the ability to field a junior varsity team.

While the future looks bright for the program, right now everyone’s focus is on this year’s tournament – where another potential showdown with No. 3-ranked Kalamazoo Christian looms, as well as a possible rematch against Lansing Christian in the Final on June 19 at Michigan State University.

If those clashes come to fruition, Parnin is well aware they could be decided by a shootout, in which case he feels very confident with Fairfield in the net.

“I couldn’t trust anyone more than I trust Syann,” said Parnin. “When we do our penalty kick drills, Syann wins. I mean, she shuts it down.

“She has the size and athletic ability, but she also has that intangible quality of a great athlete where she welcomes the challenge.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) North Muskegon senior keeper Syann Fairfield boots the ball during a game against Holland West Ottawa. The Norse have allowed just four goals in 16 games this spring. (Middle) North Muskegon senior captain Emily Olsen, who has 19 goals and 18 assists, leaps before making a play on the ball. (Below) Norse senior captain Audrey Wilson, who has 16 goals and 10 assists, battles for possession of the ball. (Photos by Rhonda Kinahan.)

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.)