By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Although his team found itself in an unfamiliar situation Friday afternoon, David Dwaihy had an idea how at least the first part might play out.
As Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett readied for its first tie-breaker shootout of this spring – and in the season’s final game – Dwaihy, the eighth-year coach, decided to simply ask his players to raise their hands if they wanted one of the penalty kicks.
“I had a few in mind who I wanted to take the shot,” Dwaihy said. “I ended up just saying raise your hand if you want one. The hands flew up, and the freshmen all raised their hands.”
And then the most “courageous and bold” of them all finished the Knights’ first MHSAA championship run since she was getting ready to start kindergarten.
Freshman defender Kate Birgbauer was her team’s fourth and final shooter and put her attempt just past the crossbar into the top of the net to give Liggett a 4-2 advantage in the shootout and a 1-0 win over Montrose in the Division 4 championship game at DeMartin Stadium.
Sophomores Kelly Solak and Alexis Wenger and junior Maddie Wu also made kicks as Montrose missed their first two tries, setting Birgbauer up to end the game.
“I love shootouts. I like the pressure,” Birgbauer said. “I actually turned to my friend Izzy (Brusilow, the team’s second-leading scorer this season) and I was like, ‘Are you 100 percent sure you’re going to make this?’ She was like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ so I was like, I’ll take it. So I stepped up and shot it.”
“They’re courageous and a very bold, confident group – especially our center back who scored the winner, Katie Birgbauer,” Dwaihy added. “She wanted it.”
Liggett (19-2-1) won its fifth straight District title to start this run and repeated as Regional champion as well, but hadn’t played in an MHSAA championship game since winning Division 4 in 2005.
Despite their relative youth – the Knights had only three seniors this season – a number of key players gained experience during last season’s run. But they still hadn’t been pushed to this brink during a season in which they gave up only 14 goals.
Montrose (23-4-1), meanwhile, was playing in its first MHSAA championship game in girls soccer after winning its first Regional title, and ended this season giving up only nine goals.
The more upperclassmen-laden Rams went on the attack immediately. Sophomore Remington Hobson broke away at 28:04 in the first half, but Liggett junior keeper Kara Francis jumped in front to deflect the drive away from the goal. Senior Ellory Barnette sent a header over the net off a corner with 14:04 to go in the half, and Liggett sophomore defender Teagan Cornell headed away another Montrose shot midway through the second half that would have found the net had she not dropped back to cover the corner.
The shot differential wasn’t much during regulation, with Montrose tallying nine to Liggett’s eight. But the Rams had 11 corner kicks in the game to Liggett’s one, giving them better opportunities to attack.
“That’s turned out to be our bread and butter this year, set pieces, corners, and we came close,” Montrose coach Jason Perrin said. “If you get 11 of them, you’ve got to put one in.
"But they’re very similar to us – they get 10 girls behind the ball, they clog up the passing lanes. We do that. It was kinda like playing ourselves, a little bit.”
The game appeared over before the shootout, but only for a minute, when a Liggett throw-in landed in the Montrose net with 5:09 to go in the second period of overtime – but the goal was called off because it didn’t touch a player from either team on the way.
“I think that lit a fire in our hearts a bit,” Birgbauer said. “We got mad, and we came back.”
Montrose had more experience in shootouts – they’d gone 1-1 previously, with a win that way over No. 2 Elk Rapids in the Regional Final. But Liggett apparently was plenty prepared despite a lack of shootout experience.
Liggett’s Francis and Montrose senior keeper Alexis Rush both made four saves while controlling play in front of their respective nets. Rush is one of eight seniors who will graduate from the Rams’ most successful team.
“We had a good core coming back. We won 17 games (last season). But we hadn’t won a District since 2001. So it’s hard to dream too much beyond the District or Regional level,” Perrin said. “But this team grew with confidence. Really, once we beat (Saginaw) Nouvel in the District Finals, I could just tell we had the mindset to go as far as they wanted, and they put on a good run.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Teammates converge on Liggett’s Kate Birgbauer after the freshman’s winning shot in Friday’s Division 4 Final. (Middle) Liggett’s Rebecca Lohman moves the ball to a teammate while Montrose players pursue.
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.)