MHSA(Q&)A: Soccer Coaches President Zach Jonker
September 21, 2012
By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Zach Jonker has had his hands – or, perhaps, feet – on just about every facet of soccer in this state over the last 20 years.
He played on a Class B Semifinalist at Petoskey before graduating in 1995, then earned four letters and served as a captain at Hope College. He came back home to teach social studies and became coach of both boys and girls varsities that are regularly among the northern Lower Peninsula's elite, but also are highly-regarded statewide. And this fall, he began the first of a two-year term as president of the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association.
So he can speak first-hand on the benefits of playing high school soccer in Michigan, which is good news to get out perhaps now more than ever. Michigan high school soccer is facing a predicament unlike any it has tackled before – the creation by U.S. Soccer of its Development Academy, a set of travel teams all over the country that train nearly year-round and are meant to eventually fuel the men's national team. That opportunity has drawn a number of top Michigan players out of high school soccer.
Jonker and his coaching brethren are monitoring that situation closely, while continuing to lead their teams into the second half of this fall boys season. His Northmen are 6-7-1 overall this fall, but have faced three of the top-five ranked teams in Division 1 and another from Division 2.
Despite your location near the tip of the Lower Peninsula, you still manage to schedule strong competition. How do you make it work?
We’re in a really nice spot. Traverse City hosts a tournament during the regular season with Traverse City Central, Traverse City West and Petoskey, and then they invite three schools from downstate that have generally been (Warren) DeLaSalle, Clarkston and Ann Arbor Skyline. The following weekend, we host a similar format with Rochester Hills Stoney Creek and Bloomfield Hills Lahser. We get six really good games at the start of the season with two tournaments. It’s early in the season and teams love coming up, making a weekend out of it, hitting the beach and doing some bonding. And the fields at Traverse City and Petoskey are both beautiful, which helps teams commit, plus the three of us are very competitive.
We’re coming down next weekend to play East Lansing, and we always schedule a couple of those. Last year, Mason came up here. It’s definitely a commitment in terms of travel during the course of the year, but from a Petoskey standpoint, I don’t care about our nonleague record. We’re using those games to get better for our league and better for the (MHSAA) tournament. The only tough thing is putting that in perspective for the kids.
What is something happening in high school soccer that the coaches association is proudest about right now?
We’re always looking at it from the other side, what we want to make better. But one of our main goals as an association is to properly recognize players. And I think the process we have in place for giving all-district, all-regional and all-state recognition and ultimately the selection of the Dream Team, I think that’s a very good model that enables us as an association to truly recognize players who put the work in and had a successful season. We also redesigned our web site this past season, and we’ve done a lot of the all-state process online, which a lot of coaches really liked because it cut down travel time for meetings.
Is anything new on the horizon?
A lot of coaches are really interested in seeing what the long-term impact of the (U.S.) Academy ruling is. Everyone’s initial take is we’re seeing increased parity round the state as the result of 120 kids electing not to play high school soccer this year. Obviously, all of those players are good players playing at a high level, and people are interested in seeing at the end of the season if kids are going to have missed playing in front of their communities, and if kids are going to migrate back to high school soccer. There’s talk of U.S. Soccer adding a U-14 academy. They’re trying to expand.
What has been the reaction so far to the U.S. Academy?
For certain players, the academy makes sense. They’re in a professional training environment 10 months out of the year. But those guys not on the professional track would be equally served by playing high school soccer and playing club like we always have. (U.S. Soccer) is doing a lot of this to benefit the top one percent of players. It’s the main frustration from the coaches.
Everyone kind of understands why U.S. Soccer is headed down that path, and it impacted each (high school) team differently. Some programs lost upwards of 8-10 kids as a result. Some didn’t lose any.
In terms of geographic parity, we’re already seeing that. Two years ago, west side teams won all four championships. Last year, Detroit teams won all four. Now we’re going to see more parity within districts, within conferences. And I think we’ll see scores closer than in the past.
What role should high school soccer play compared to club, the academy, etc.?
I equate it as playing for your national team. When you put your school colors on, go out with your friends that you’ve played with since kindergarten, it’s really special. They can’t even begin to match the rivalries we have with high school soccer, the amount of passion that exists within our game and the number of fans that show up at these games. At an academy game, you might have a handful of parents on the sideline, that’s it, and a few college coaches watching. But you can’t match the high school experience and the passion that exists. Kids are going to miss that, and we’ll get kids back because of that.
Do your players see an MHSAA championship differently because so many elite players aren’t participating in high school?
It doesn’t even register with these guys. The (MHSAA) championships are going to be awarded in November, and for whoever wins this year, it will be just as meaningful for these guys as the guys who won last year.
Does soccer get a bump from U.S. national team success like swimming or gymnastics might during Olympic years?
Any time it’s a World Cup year, men’s or women’s, the players get really excited about the experience. It gets them enthused to get out and train. I don’t think kids watch enough soccer in this country, and that’s one of the big issues we have. Ultimately, what’s holding us back at the national team level is kids are not growing up in a culture of soccer on television like in other countries against which we compete. In a World Cup year, kids get excited, and they watch more soccer, and the play is better on the field.
How much has high school soccer changed since you played?
There are just so many more layers of sophistication, tactically. We had good athletes playing at that point, and we have good athletes playing now. But as a country, we’ve evolved from a coaching standpoint. The kids are getting better technical training at a younger age, and are much better tactically. There are many more teams now emphasizing more possession-based (play). What else has helped the evolution is getting off playing on football fields. During the (19)80s and 90s, a lot of games were played on them, and it made it hard to possess the ball when the turf was chewed up. Soccer-specific fields have helped the game evolve.
What will Michigan high school soccer look like five years from now?
I like the path we’re headed down. The number one thing going forward is seeing what happens with the evolution of the academy program – do kids come back, or does the academy program grow? Regardless, the kids playing high school soccer are going to have a great experience, and there are a lot of really good coaches in high school soccer, a lot of really great referees and administrators. That makes the game special. I see us continuing to have the best going forward.
PHOTO: Petoskey senior Noah Honaker goes high while surrounded by defenders to head a ball during a game this season. (Photo courtesy of Dean Viles.)
3-Sport Standout Sluss Gives Lenawee Christian All-State Boost for Every Season
By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com
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.
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.)