COVID-19 prevented Jen VanNoord from receiving a proper soccer sendoff as her time guiding Cadillac’s girls program came to a close.
Her McBain Northern Michigan Christian soccer players certainly have given her a proper welcome.
And, Northern Michigan Soccer League opponents should be cautioned, if they haven’t been already.
We’re not talking about soccer’s red card sendoffs and yellow card cautions. VanNoord, who took the helm at Cadillac High School in 2003, built a strong youth program and took the Vikings from near the bottom to always near, if not at, the top of the Big North Conference going head-to-head with Petoskey, Gaylord, Alpena, Traverse City Central and Traverse City West.
At NMC, VanNoord took over for longtime Comets coach Dave VanHaitsma, who had the program heading the right direction. The Comets have very high expectations this season.
“I knew that in order to build a high school program I had to build the youth program and the love for soccer first – and that's what I did – with the help of so many amazing people,” VanNoord enthusiastically recalled of her time at Cadillac. “Building a program definitely didn't happen overnight, but as the love for soccer grew in the community so did our success as a high school program, and that success continues and our girls youth program is strong.”
Cadillac is off to a 6-1-4 start this season. COVID-19 erased what was supposed to be VanNoord’s final season guiding the Vikings. Cadillac knew VanNoord would step down when her daughter, Jada, entered high school and started playing soccer for NMC.
But with the pandemic starting to impact high school sports in the spring of 2020, Cadillac athletic director Fred Bryant was left regretting that the Vikings didn’t get the chance for a proper sendoff. That entire spring season was canceled after just a few weeks of practice because of the coronavirus.
"Coach VanNoord was an outstanding role model and coach for the girls soccer program as well as the entire soccer community here in Cadillac years before my arrival as athletic director in the fall of 2017,” Bryant said. “My short time with her proved to be nothing different than the previous years, as her experience and professionalism were apparent from the time I first met her.
“Unfortunately, we knew in advance that the 2020 season would be her last, but COVID abruptly ended her last season here in Cadillac and we did not get the opportunity to give her the true recognition she deserved,” he continued. “I for one am not surprised at all by the immediate impact that she has had on their program."
The Comets, with VanNoord at the helm, are off to a 9-0 start and 8-0 in league play. They’ll take on Midland Calvary Baptist this afternoon fresh from a 6-0 win earlier this week over Buckley.
Jada VanNoord had three goals and Paige Ebels scored twice against the Bears. Aria Cucinella also scored.
The Comets were 10-2-1 last year, reaching the league title game and advancing to Regionals. They’re hoping to capture the league title again and make a deeper postseason run.
VanNoord focuses on teaching fundamentals daily, constantly giving encouragement and providing an environment allowing players to thrive no matter the circumstance.
“In my opinion the key to success is to get the most out of each player every day and make them into the best player they can be that day,” she said. “This is going to be different for every girl, and it's probably going to be different every day too.
“Then, I take all the individuals and make them into one cohesive group,” she went on. “Soccer is a physically demanding sport especially in the spring, and it's easy to get discouraged and fatigued. And putting players in the right positions to create that cohesive group makes all the difference in winning and losing a game.”
The Comets are led by high-scoring sophomore Jada VanNoord. Onlookers believe she has already set the school’s single-season record for goals.
You won’t get Coach VanNoord to acknowledge stats, or specifics on the job Mabel Yount, Alaina Rozeveld, Maggie Yount and Sol Pacheco have done shutting down opponents' passing lanes this season.
“I am not one to focus on individual stats,” the coach said. “Our success comes from putting each other first.
“Our goal is to make each other great.”
And the Comets don’t rely on one player, Jen VanNoord noted.
“If each member on the team focuses on the other members of the team more than themselves, we can build from there and find success,” she said. “We are successful because we fight for each other, we are relentless for each other, and we constantly build each other up.
“This season we have many tremendous athletes who are fast and physical and strong with a wide variety of soccer specific abilities,” she continued. “No one player can win on their own – it takes every player for us to win.”
She does have to admit it is a dream come true to coach Jada. And she’s coaching the right team despite a continued support for the Vikings.
“Jada plays with so much joy and confidence that it spills over to her teammates and makes us better as a team,” Jen VanNoord said. “As much as I love the players and the program at Cadillac, I didn't want to miss her high school games to keep coaching there.
“The success NMC had last season and so far this season just solidifies the fact that I'm in the right spot at the right time in my coaching career,” she continued. “I have found a new joy for coaching because of my daughter and her NMC teammates.”
Coach VanNoord grew up in Southern California and fell in love with the game of soccer at a young age.
“I played it as often as I could, and in California you can play soccer every day,” she said.
Her family moved to Grand Rapids when she was in high school. She played for Grand Rapids Christian High School and longtime coach Larry Klaasen, who VanNoord describes as “an incredible teacher of the game.”
Klaasen, who also taught history for 21 years at Grand Rapids Christian before retiring, guided the boys soccer program for 32 seasons and the girls for 23. He stepped down as the girls coach after the 2011 season.
VanNoord started her coaching career as the junior varsity coach under Klaasen. She went on to play collegiate soccer at Calvin College.
“I found a lot of success on the field as a player but also had some amazing coaches that continued to make me into a coach that loves to play the game, loves my players and loves teaching the game,” VanNoord said.
Bill Anderson, a longtime youth and high school soccer official and referee assignor, first met VanNoord at a pick-up soccer game shortly after she took the Cadillac job.
“While she is always respectful, she certainly has a way of speaking that gets your attention when she wants to,” Anderson said. “Her players clearly love and respect her.
“Apart from that, the record speaks for itself.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) McBain Northern Michigan Christian’s Jada VanNoord (20) clears the ball against Big Rapids Crossroads backed by defenders Mabel Yount (18), Alaina Rozeveld, Maggie Yount (26) and Sol Pacheco (8). (Middle) NMC coach Jen VanNoord directs her team during the eventual win. (Below) Sofia Rubio (14) controls the ball while Crossroads’ Jackie Cole attempts to gain possession. (Photos by Mike Dunn/Missaukee Sentinel.)
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.)