Unexpected Becomes Elite As Hartland Makes History

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

June 19, 2021

EAST LANSING – Hartland wasn’t supposed to be in the Division 1 championship game.

And Julia Pietila wasn’t supposed to play.

So, naturally, it was Pietila – hobbling on a severely sprained left ankle which almost kept her out of the game altogether – who scored two goals as Hartland blanked Troy Athens, 4-0, in Saturday’s MHSAA Division 1 Girls Soccer Final.

“It was hurting, but it’s the state championship game,” explained Pietila, who scored the Eagles’ first and last goals in the weekend’s final game in calm, dry conditions at Michigan State University’s DeMartin Soccer Complex.

“It was now or never, so I just went with it. Once I got into the swing of things, I forgot about it.”

Hartland (20-4-1) had entered the postseason off a third-place league finish and ranked 23rd in Division 1 based on the Michigan Power Rating used to seed the top two teams at the District level.

But the Eagles seemingly forgot about all of that and the fact that it had never played in a girls soccer Finals game before, shutting out six of its seven postseason opponents.

The Eagles capped it Saturday by making Athens – No. 2 in final regular-season MPR – pay for its aggressiveness with an impressive counterattack, then cashing in on their opportunities.

It was an emotional win for veteran Hartland coach Andrew Kartsounes – who has been teaching at Hartland for 30 years and coaching soccer for 27, including the past 16 as the girls head coach – in his first appearance in a championship game.

“I was wondering if I was ever going to get here, and then to play the kind of game we did today was just amazing,” said Kartsounes, who is assisted by Wade Foster and Eric Anderson. “We just kept plugging away and created chances and, today, we finished a lot of our chances.”

Hartland grabbed a 1-0 halftime lead after junior Hannah Kastamo broke through the Athens defense and put a shot on goal, which Pietila booted in off the rebound at the 16:56 mark.

The key portion of the game was the first 10 minutes of the second half. During that period, the Red Hawks controlled play and had two excellent scoring chances – a header off a free kick that missed wide right and a nifty boot by junior Abby Mayne which just missed wide left.

Hartland soccerBut just as Athens was feeling good about things and the crowd of red was coming alive in the stands, Hartland responded with its aforementioned counterattack.

Senior Maria Storm was able to break away and send a perfectly angled kick into the top-right corner of the net with 31:32 remaining to make it 2-0 – a goal which seemed to demoralize Athens. Just two minutes later, Hartland made it 3-0 on another goal by Kastamo.

“We haven’t seen that kind of counterattack in a while,” said 10th-year Athens coach Todd Heugh. “We generated corner kicks, and they generated goals. Soccer is a game of chances. They made good on theirs, and we did not on ours.”

Athens (17-2-4) has won four girls soccer championships, but its last title came 21 years ago in 2000. The Red Hawks, who had posted eight consecutive shutouts coming into Saturday’s Final, now have three runner-up finishes.

Kartsounes agreed the key to the victory was weathering the storm early in the second half.

“They started the second half and were really taking it to us,” said Kartsounes, who received tremendous on-field leadership from captains Kamryn Gereck, Justina L’Esperance and Storm. “I told my assistants that we can’t survive like this for 40 minutes, then we finally started possessing the ball.”

Pietila completed the scoring with her second goal of the day at the 18:21 mark. Alyse Daavettila and L’Esperance added assists for the Eagles.

Athens actually held the edge in total shots (16-14) and corner kicks (6-3), but Hartland held a 9-7 advantage in shots on goal. Athens senior keeper Nitya Balusu made five saves.

Hartland junior keeper Morgan Seog was outstanding in goal, finishing with six saves. The Eagles produced shutouts in the first five playoff games and final game.

The only postseason game in which Hartland allowed a goal was Wednesday’s Semifinal, a narrow 3-2 win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. It was also seven minutes into that game when Pietila sprained her ankle on a sprinkler.

“On Wednesday night, there was no way she was going to play, Thursday was a little better and it wasn’t until after warmups today that we knew she was going to play for sure,” said Kartsounes. “Then she goes out there and scores the game-winning goal of the state finals on one leg.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Hartland players celebrate during their Division 1 Final win Saturday. (Middle) The Eagles’ Maria Storm (13) and Athens’ Meagan Lindgren (15) battle for possession.

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.)