The Plainwell girls soccer team has given up one more goal this season than the number of seniors on the varsity roster.
That total of one goal is especially impressive given the team’s zero seniors as it continues to stand among the state’s elite in Division 2 with District play set to begin in two weeks.
The MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for April opened the season with seven straight shutouts during that month and extended the streak to 10 into the first week of May before finally surrendering a goal Monday against Dowagiac. But the Trojans came back with another shutout of Edwardsburg on Wednesday, bringing the total to 11 scoreless results during a 12-0 start for a team with seven juniors, eight sophomores, three freshmen and no one graduating this spring.
The majority of the lineup returned from last season’s 13-3-1 team that reached the District Final before falling in overtime. But factor this as well into the impressive start: The first six shutouts came with junior starting keeper Eliza Harris out and sophomore Evelyn Alward taking her place as the last line of defense.
This year’s team passed last year’s shutout total of eight nearly two weeks ago.
“We lost three seniors last year, but the girls stepped up in those spots,” Plainwell coach Garry Snyder said. “I think it’s the combination of a little bit more maturity, playing together, better team chemistry this year than last year. It’s something we’ve been working on and still continue to work on.”
Harris has been back in net since the last game in April, and a strong group in front of her limits opponents’ opportunities with junior Renae Jaeger at center back and juniors Gaby Zugel and Berlynn Conley flanking her. Junior Catey Engel and sophomore Brooklyn Timpe also are significant contributors from the defensive midfield spots, and sophomore Kailah Newcomb dips back to help as well.
Newcomb, a midfielder who Snyder notes for her exceptional vision on the field, leads the team with 14 goals and is tied with a team-best six assists. Sophomore forward Kayla Baar joined her as a standout freshman in 2021 and has 12 goals and five assists utilizing speed Snyder said is unmatched.
Zugel, who can play all over the pitch, has added nine goals, with Timpe and junior forward Nikki Faupel sending in six apiece. Faupel, who moved up front from outside mid this season, also shares the team lead with six assists.
Among Plainwell’s wins was a 1-0 shutout of Grand Rapids South Christian (13-2), which is ranked No. 3 in Division 3. The Trojans also have wins over three Division 1 opponents, and with one more victory can guarantee a share of a repeat Wolverine Conference title.
Then comes the postseason. Plainwell today would be the top seed of a daunting District that includes three one-loss teams. District pairings will be posted Sunday morning.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do,” Snyder said. “(We need to) make sure we take care of business and stay healthy. That’s the key; we’ve had a number of health issues, banged up here and there. (But) someone else is always willing to step up and get the job done.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2021-22
March: West Bloomfield girls basketball - Read
February: Cadillac girls skiing - Read
January: Hartland hockey - Read
December: Midland Dow girls basketball - Read
November: Reese girls volleyball - Read
October: Birmingham Groves boys tennis - Read
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.)