By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The setting is new – at least somewhat – as the MHSAA Girls Soccer Finals return to Michigan State University this spring for the first time since 2012. The format is new, as two Finals will be played Friday and Saturday.
But most of the favorites are familiar as three teams compete to repeat as champions.
Grandville Calvin Christian is playing for its fourth straight title in Division 4, while Richland Gull Lake is looking to make it three straight in Division 2 and Hudsonville Unity Christian is playing for its second straight title but ninth total overall.
The narrative is the opposite in Division 1, where both teams are playing for the first title in program history.
Below is this weekend’s schedule, followed by glances at all eight finalists.
Hudsonville Unity Christian vs. Detroit Country Day, 1 p.m.
Richland Gull Lake vs. Fenton, 4 p.m.
Grandville Calvin Christian vs. Lansing Christian, 1 p.m.
Saline vs. Grand Blanc, 4 p.m.
Tickets cost $8 per day and include admission to baseball and softball games that day also at MSU’s Old College Field. Radio broadcasts of all games can be heard online at MHSAAnetwork.com. All games will be streamed live online at MHSAA.TV and viewable on subscription basis.
All statistics below are through at least the regular season, with most through teams' Regionals. (Click for links to brackets and scores.)
Record/rank: 18-5-5, unranked
Coach: Greg Kehler, 17th season (260-80-47)
League finish: Third in Kensington Lakes Activities Association West.
Championship history: Division 1 runner-up 2004.
Players to watch: Annie Walker, sr. F (29 goals, 10 assists), Lara Wheeler, fr. F (17 goals, 5 assists); Amy Puidokas, jr. GK (0.60 goals-against average, 8 shutouts).
Outlook: Grand Blanc is on its best tournament run since making the Semifinals in 2005 after eliminating No. 1 Rochester Hills Stoney Creek, No. 10 Northville and then No. 5 Troy Athens in its last three games. Walker made the all-state first team last season and is again the scorer to stop, with 2014 all-state honorable mention Lexi Trudeau, a junior, among those moving the ball into striking position.
Record/rank: 21-0-3, No. 6
Coach: Dana Restrick, sixth season (record at school N/A)
League finish: First in Southeastern Conference Red.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Sofia Sweier, sr. GK (0.17 goals-against average, 20 shutouts); Taylor Mulder, sr. F (41 goals, 11 assists); Amanda Zylstra, sr. D (3 goals, 5 assists).
Outlook: Saline is 40-3-6 over the last two seasons and won its first Regional title last week. No. 3 East Kentwood in the Quarterfinal was the eighth straight opponent to be shut out by the Hornets, who have given up only four goals this season. Sweier and Zylstra made the all-state second team last season, and Mulder made the third.
Record/rank: 15-4-3, honorable mention
Coach: Matt Sullivan, 11th season (record at school N/A)
League finish: Second in Flint Metro League.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Brennan Sullivan, sr. M (1 goal, 3 assists); Brianna Costigan, jr. M (9 goals, 11 assists); Abigail Quesnelle, soph. GK (0.60 goals-against average, 14 shutouts).
Outlook: Fenton has reached the Semifinals three of the last seven seasons, but after two one-goal heartbreak losses that ended those first two trips, broke through by beating No. 6 Trenton this week. The Tigers also eliminated No. 4 Warren Regina and No. 8 Linden during the tournament and have won 11 of their last 12 games. Fenton scored 26 goals during the regular season, but has put 17 in the net in six tournament games. Costigan made the all-state second team last season, and Sullivan earned an honorable mention.
RICHLAND GULL LAKE
Record/rank: 24-1-1, No. 2
Coach: Jeff Corstange, fourth season (82-8-4)
League finish: First in Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference East.
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), four runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Hannah Phommavongsa, sr. F (16 goals, 8 assists); Amanda Pavletic, sr. M (14 goals, 8 assists); Olivia Sullivan, sr. D (1 goal, 4 assists); Kirsten Taylor, sr. F (24 goals, 11 assists).
Outlook: Gull Lake has won two straight MHSAA championships and is loaded with veterans as it goes for a third. Taylor made the all-state third team last season, and Phommavongsa, Sullivan and Pavletic earned honorable mentions. Gull Lake defeated No. 10 DeWitt and honorable mention Middleville Thornapple Kellogg during this run, with the lone loss by a goal midseason to Division 1 Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. Junior keeper Regan Troff took over in net this spring and has saved 96 percent of the shots against her.
DETROIT COUNTRY DAY
Record/rank: 18-3-2, No. 3
Coach: Bob Bukari, 29th season (record at school N/A)
League finish: Does not play in a conference.
Championship history: Five MHSAA titles (most recent 2004), four runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Isabel Nino, soph. D/GK; Jenna Staudt, sr. D/M; Dagny Hill, soph. M; Libby Ronchetto, sr. M/D (Statistics not submitted).
Outlook: Country Day has finished runner-up three times since its last title, but has plenty of key players who experienced last season’s run. Hill and Staudt made the all-state second team in 2014, Nino made the third and Ronchetto earned honorable mention. The Yellowjackets eliminated No. 6 Grosse Ile and then edged No. 2 Flint Powers Catholic in a shootout to advance to this weekend.
HUDSONVILLE UNITY CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 23-1, No. 1
Coach: Randy Heethuis, 26th season (487-87-28)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Green.
Championship history: Eight MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Bethany Balcer, sr. M (38 goals, 13 assists); Maddy VanDyke, jr. D (5 goals, 2 assists); Casandra Besteman, sr. M (3 goals, 3 assists); Elly Brummel, sr. D (4 goals, 5 assists).
Outlook: Unity Christian bounced back from a rare Finals miss by winning its eighth title last spring and second in three seasons. Unity Christian downed the reigning champion, Grand Rapids South Christian, in the Regional Final and also eliminated No. 4 Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Balcer – one of five players with at least 10 goals – and VanDyke are returning all-state first-teamers, while Brummel made the second team and Besteman earned honorable mention.
GRANDVILLE CALVIN CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 21-3, No. 2
Coach: Tim TerHaar, 15th season (255-64-20)
League finish: First in O-K Silver.
Championship history: Division 4 champion 2014, 2013 and 2012.
Players to watch: Allison Keizer, sr. GK (0.88 goals-against average, 14 shutouts); Morgan Buursma, sr. D (20 goals, 4 assists); Hilary Curry, sr. M (24 goals, 16 assists); Emily VanVliet, sr. M (11 goals, 26 assists).
Outlook: Calvin Christian can become just the second team in MHSAA history to win four straight girls soccer championships, following the Unity Christian teams of 2005-10. Keizer and Buursma made the all-state first team last season, while Curry made the third team and VanVliet earned honorable mention. Four Calvin Christian players have scored at least 20 goals this season – junior forwards Whitney Koets (28) and Natalie Honeycutt (22) are the other two.
Record/rank: 20-4, honorable mention
Coach: Joel Vande Kopple, ninth season (129-41-9)
League finish: Tied for first in Greater Lansing Activities Conference.
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2011.
Players to watch: Kasey Jamieson, fr. F (47 goals, 15 assists); Emily Voss, sr. F (27 goals, 16 assists); Rachelle Trafford, sr. GK (0.74 goals-against average, 15 shutouts).
Outlook: Lansing Christian has reached at least the Semifinals four of the last five seasons, giving the Pilgrims as much late-round experience as most left this weekend. Voss made the all-state third team in 2014 and provides an excellent one-two scoring punch with Jamieson, who also had both goals in the Semifinal win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett to push her first-season total to 49.
PHOTO: Grandville Calvin Christian's Emily VanVliet controls possession during last season's Division 4 Final win.
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.)