By Keith Dunlap
Special for Second Half
WILLIAMSTON – About three weeks ago, Lansing Christian girls soccer coach Joel Vande Kopple said junior goalkeeper Lynn Cullens came to him at practice with what couldn’t have been classified as uplifting words.
“She says, ‘Coach, we are not going to win a state championship with me in goal on penalty kicks,’” Vande Kopple said. “We just kept working with her.”
Fast forward to Saturday’s Division 4 championship game against Kalamazoo Christian, and guess what situation Lansing Christian found itself in?
You guessed it, penalty kicks.
After giving up the tying goal with 3:03 left in overtime, a dejected Lansing Christian team had to regroup and see its goalie face her worst fears in pursuit of an elusive first MHSAA girls soccer title in school history.
But Cullens rose above her shootout fears, making a save and seeing another shot go off of the crossbar.
Thanks to those two failed conversions and four successful ones by Lansing Christian, the Pilgrims finally delivered a long-awaited title with a 2-1 shootout victory.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” Cullens said. “That was the worst spot I could’ve thought of being in, but I just had to trust in God all the way and I did. It ended up pretty well. I had to stop doubting myself.”
After dominating the play during regulation but failing to produce a goal, it looked like Lansing Christian wasn’t going to need a shootout.
With 7:22 left in the first overtime period, sophomore Rilyn Ross beautifully headed home a service into the box by sophomore Jackie Moore to make it 1-0 Lansing Christian.
With Pilgrims fans counting down the minutes in anticipation of the first MHSAA title in program history, Kalamazoo Christian had an answer.
With 3:03 remaining in the second period of overtime, the Comets got an opportunity with a corner kick and sent all 11 players into the box, including senior keeper Allyson Kranstz.
All the commotion in the box paid off, as freshman Lauryn Mohney headed in a perfect service by senior Meagan Laaksonen to tie the game 1-1.
“We had to do something,” Kalamazoo Christian coach Jay Allen said. “My goalie in practice has always wanted to be a forward, so this was her chance.”
Kalamazoo Christian was obviously the much more upbeat team going into the shootout, prompting Vande Kopple to turn into a motivational speaker.
“We wanted to make sure that we were very positive,” Vande Kopple said. “We have been in this position before. We have given up late goals before, and we have always found a way to win.”
Both Lansing Christian sophomore Kealeigh Usiak and Kalamazoo Christian’s Laaksonen scored in the first round of the shootout, and then Lansing Christian sophomore Abby Lyon scored to start the second.
Cullens then dove to her left to stop Kalamazoo Christian leading scorer Kayla Beebe to give the Pilgrims an early edge.
Kranstz answered by stopping Lansing Christian leading scorer Kasey Jamieson to start the third round, but the Pilgrims maintained a lead after Kalamazoo Christian hit the crossbar.
After goals by Lansing Christian junior Jessie Kruger and Kalamazoo Christian senior Annika VanZytveld in the fourth round, Pilgrims sophomore Eliza Lewis scored to clinch the title.
The Pilgrims (23-2-2) previously had lost in the 2015 and 2011 championship games. Making its first Finals appearance since 2008, Kalamazoo Christian finished 20-3-3.
Kranstz made 13 saves in goal for the Comets.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Christian celebrates during its first Division 4 championship win. (Middle) Abigail Dykema helps clear the goal for Kalamazoo Christian.
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.)