Mona Shores Sails Through Historic Run

June 7, 2017

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

PORTAGE – The end is never easy, especially when it’s a team’s first taste of defeat – and especially when it appeared, for almost three quarters of the game, that a monumental upset was in the works.

There were plenty of tears Tuesday as Muskegon Mona Shores saw its 1-0 lead, and its perfect season, come unraveled as No. 1-ranked Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central scored three goals over an 8-minute stretch midway through the second half of a 4-1 victory in the Division 1 Regional Semifinals at Portage Central.

“We just ran out of gas,” explained first-year Mona Shores coach Dylan Darga, whose team finished 21-1. “We took the top-ranked team in the state deep into the second half. You always want one more win, but what we accomplished this season was pretty incredible.”

Top-ranked Forest Hills Central advanced to Friday’s 6 p.m. Regional championship game at Portage Central against No. 2 Brighton, which downed host Portage Central 3-1 in Tuesday’s first Semifinal game.

And perhaps Mona Shores’ dream season ended at the appropriate time.

For one thing, Darga can now focus 100 percent on his wedding this weekend.

Darga, a 3rd-grade teacher at Marquette Elementary School in the Muskegon Public School District, is getting married Saturday and his rehearsal dinner is Friday night – which would have been in direct conflict with the Regional championship game.

When Darga made his wedding plans last summer, he had no idea he would be coaching varsity soccer. Darga previously coached the junior varsity girls team at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer before taking the Mona Shores varsity job in February.

“We had some plans in place for Friday night if it came to that,” said Darga, who is assisted on the varsity by Scott White and also junior varsity coach Ashley Moblo. “I have a couple of very good assistant coaches, and they would have done a great job. It would have been strange for me not to be there with them.”

The timing of the loss provided the Shores players, coaches and fans with several nice trophies, as champions of the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black and their Division 1 District, while also whetting their appetites for next season. Mona Shores, which graduates just three seniors, should now have plenty of motivation heading into the 2018 season – which was the year everyone was targeting as the Sailors’ breakout year on the statewide stage, anyway.

Mona Shores just decided to get the party started one year early, putting together the first undefeated regular season in school history and their first District championship since 2007 with a 3-1 win over rival Grand Haven on Saturday.

Along the way, there were individual school records falling left and right – all by underclassmen.

Sarah Mikesell, a junior forward, already has the school record with 73 career goals (including 40 goals this season) with her senior season still to come. Sophomore Raegan Cox, a dynamic playmaker who has already verbally committed to sign with the University of Arkansas, set another school record with 31 assists. In goal, junior Megan Swanker recorded a school-best 15 shutouts – and did not allow a single goal in May until the opening game of the District tournament.

While those three have garnered the lion’s share of headlines this season, sophomore Nora Brown and junior Peyton Erndteman also were key cogs in the offensive attack.

But Darga singled out the play of his four starting defenders as a key reason Shores was able to rise to No. 3 in the final state rankings entering tournament play. Junior stopper Mal Meston was the ringleader of that defense, which also included senior Isabel Grace (the team’s lone senior starter), sophomore Erin Powers and freshman Alexa Musk.

“Those four are really the unsung heroes of our whole operation,” said Darga, a 2004 Fruitport High School graduate and soccer standout. “As a former defenseman myself, I tell them all the time how important they are. If you never allow a goal, you will never lose a soccer game.”

In addition to Grace, the other seniors on the roster were McKenna Matthews and Haley Gartland.

Even after taking the Mona Shores varsity job in February, Darga had little reason to believe there was going to be a potential conflict between his wedding and Regional tournament games.

Mona Shores had not won a District title in 10 years, and with just three seniors, it appeared the program’s breakthrough season would be another year away.

 “Honestly, when I looked at the first six games of our season, I could see a scenario where we would be 4-2 or even 3-3 coming out of those games,” said Darga, pointing out early games against Holland West Ottawa, Grand Haven and Spring Lake. “So when we were 6-0, I knew we had something special going.”

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 kendra.tom@gmail.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Mona Shores junior forward Sarah Mikesell, right, battles for possession of the ball during the Sailors' 3-1 victory over Grand Haven in the Division 1 District Final on June 3. Mikesell scored 40 goals this season and has 73 goals for her career. (Middle) First-year Muskegon Mona Shores soccer coach Dylan Darga reacts to the play during the Sailors' win over Grand Haven. Darga led Mona Shores to a 21-1 record in his first season as coach. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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.)