Middleville T-K Aims to Make Playoff Splash

May 30, 2017

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

MIDDLEVILLE – When talking about perennial girls soccer powerhouses in the Grand Rapids area, Middleville Thornapple Kellogg might not be the first that comes to mind.

However, the rural school located south of the big city is beginning to make a name for itself on the pitch.

With a dramatic double-overtime win over Ada Forest Hills Eastern last week, the Trojans clinched a share of their third straight Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold championship.

Before that current three-year run in conference play, Middleville T-K had won only one conference title in school history.

The Trojans enter District play this afternoon with a sparkling 15-2-1 record and ranked No. 9 in Division 2.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get the publicity other teams do, but that’s OK,” seventh-year Trojans coach Joel Strickland said. “We are comfortable with who we are and I think we’re starting to get recognized a little, but maybe as not as much as I think they deserve.”

While winning conference titles has been satisfying, Strickland said postseason success is the key to gaining recognition.

“To win three in a row has been huge, but the next goal is we have to do some damage in the postseason to earn that respect,” he said. “We haven’t won a District title yet. That’s the next step for us.”

The Trojans will face a challenge in their District opener as they host No. 5 Richland Gull Lake, which won three straight MHSAA Division 2 Finals from 2013-15.

This year’s T-K squad includes five talented seniors, four who have committed to play at the college level, and they are confident in their abilities to pull off the upset.

“We would love to win Districts, and as a senior this is my last chance,” said Middleville T-K senior keeper Maddie Hutchins, who helped her team post 12 shutouts this season.

“No one is expecting us to win this game, but I feel like we have a real chance. It would be amazing if we could knock them out in the first round of Districts. I feel like if we’re going to do it, then this is the year. We have the talent, and as long as we play together then I think we’re pretty unstoppable. Don’t underestimate us.”

Another senior, Allexus Barnes, said winning in a District would help in their quest to gain more respect in the area.

“We’ve really grown as a team this year and we’re getting our name out there,” she said. “We’re showing people how strong we are. We have the conference titles, but I think we’re ready for that next step and I hope we can do it this year.”

The Trojans opened the season with a 4-0 loss to Grandville, but since have been on a tear. They’ve allowed only five more goals after those first four, bolstered by the play of Hutchins in net and an improved defense.

After graduating 10 from a year ago, including standout keeper Aly Miller and seven other starters, it took them a while to create their own identity.

“The first game was a little rough, but I think a lot of it was figuring out the communication issues that we may have had because we lost of a lot of senior defenders from last year,” Hutchins said. “After that, we’ve really stepped up and played as a unit and we’ve improved drastically. We’re playing really well in the back right now.”

Other senior contributors have been forward Alyvia Thorne and defenders Taylor Pratt and Breana Bouchard.

This year’s group is just as successful off the field. The squad has a cumulative grade point average of 4.03, and 12 players boast a 4.0 or higher grade point average.

Strickland expresses the importance of being well-rounded individuals who come together for the betterment of the team and the community.

“It’s about the team concept,” he said. “Understanding that it’s not about any individual. It’s about doing it together and doing it the right way. Just making sure it is bigger than just soccer. Doing well in the classroom, integrity and sportsmanship are big parts of the foundation of who we are as a program, and that winning comes with their hard work and putting in the effort out of the season.”

Many of the past and present players have competed together in the local travel Thornapple Area Soccer Club. It has become an avenue for girls to develop and hone their skills.  

“That’s been a big part of our success as well,” Strickland said. “It’s an affordable club for kids who can’t afford to play at Midwest United or clubs like that. That has helped us, but this year’s team is a collaboration from all over.”

Many of the girls on the roster also play multiple sports.

“Being a smaller school, you need to have multi-sport athletes and I think that also helps them,” Strickland said. “It helps them work on different concepts. and they don’t get burned out in soccer. Having a break and playing something different is a good thing.”

A close-knit bond also has enabled the team to enjoy the experience.

“I think our camaraderie is awesome, and that’s the best part of our team,” Barnes said. “We all mesh really well together, and it has helped us a lot and brought us success.”

PHOTO: (Top) Middleville Thornapple Kellogg defender Breanna Bouchard (7) works to maintain possession. (Middle) Alyvia Thorne prepares to launch a kick during a game this season. (Photos by Marc Hutchins.)

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.

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 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.)