By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Hudsonville Unity Christian junior goalkeeper Emily Ponstein had both arms around the championship trophy and clutched it to her chest.
“I think I’m going to take it home with me,” she said.
Ponstein wasn’t going to let go of the trophy, much like she didn’t let go of any ball that was sent in her direction Saturday afternoon at DeMartin Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.
Ponstein made seven saves as the second-ranked Crusaders defeated No. 1 Flint Powers Catholic 2-0 in the MHSAA Division 3 girls championship game.
It was the third Finals championship in a row for Unity Christian (22-2-1), which has won 10 of the past 12 Division 3 titles. Flint Powers has been the runner-up in four of those championship games and defeated Unity Christian for the title in 2011.
Unity Christian coach Randy Heethuis, in his 27th season leading the Crusaders, heaped a ton of praise on his junior keeper.
“She made at least three or four fantastic saves. She basically stood on her head and kept Powers off the board,” he said. “That was by far her finest game she has had for us, and what a great stage to do it on. It was neat.”
Ponstein was at her best about 10 minutes into the second half when she stopped two shots directly in front of the net. She added a diving save to her left later in the half.
“I saw her coming in, and I was like, ‘No, not today, sorry,’” Ponstein said of the first shot. “The second one was tougher because it was in the air and it was a quick reaction save. The one I had to dive for came in a lot quicker than I expected. It was a great shot, and they are a great team.”
Flint Powers (21-2-1) outshot Unity Christian 16-3 and had the edge on corner kicks 5-1. But Ponstein clearly was the difference.
“I give a lot of credit to that goalie,” Flint Powers coach Art Moody said. “She made some amazing saves. If one of those shots goes in, it’s a different game.”
Ponstein said seeing so many shots actually might have worked in her favor.
“The constant pressure makes you really tired at the end of the game, but I think it keeps me on my toes,” she said. “Since I don’t get a break, I don’t have a chance to lose focus.”
Junior midfielder Alaina VanZalen gave Unity Christian a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute of the first half. She found the net from the left side of the top of the box and beat the Flint Powers goalkeeper on the short side. It was the first shot on goal of the game for the Crusaders.
“I shot it, and I really didn’t think it was going in,” she said. “I was shooting at the short side, and (the keeper) was there but it kind of snuck under her. It was a great surprise.”
It also was something that was part of the game plan.
“I saw a goal that somehow slipped under their keeper,” Heethuis said. “We talked about it at practice and said we want to test this keeper on the low side. I was screened out, so I couldn’t see it, but I saw Alaina shoot, and I just saw it stayed on the ground and went in. How it went in, I’m not exactly sure.”
The game stayed 1-0 until late in the second half. Sophomore Alexis Ponstein, younger sister of the goalie Emily, dribbled more than 50 yards on a breakaway and scored unassisted in the 78th minute to basically put the game away.
Ponstein, the goalie, was emotional talking about her little sister scoring a goal.
“I’m so proud of her,” she said through tears. “She has worked so hard.”
Most of the Unity Christian team actually did not want Alexis Ponstein to take the ball to the net.
“When she got the ball, there was part of us on the sideline saying, ‘Take it to the corner,’ ” Heethuis said. “That’s not in her DNA. She took it and realized she had one player to beat, and she got around her. Give that defender credit. She got a foot on the first shot, but then Lex just cleaned it up and nicely passed the ball into the side netting.
“We’ve been getting on her about hitting the ball too hard sometimes, and she didn’t that time. She took something off it and neatly tucked it into the corner. She must have been listening.”
She might have listened about the hard shots, but she didn’t listen about going to the corner late in the game.
“I was going down the center, and Coach is screaming at me, ‘Go to the corner, waste time, go to the corner, so I picked my head up and the last girl just stabbed, and I went around her and realized it was just me and the goal, so I just went for it,” she said
It was the final game for two-time all-stater Maddy VanDyke, who last year scored the game-winner in double overtime to give Unity Christian the Division 3 title. She was just as happy this year to win even though she did not score.
“We still won it. I don’t care who scores; we win, and it means a lot,” said VanDyke, who will play on the same field next season for Michigan State University. “I have a lot of memories here for high school, and I hope to make a lot more for college.”
VanDyke went out a three-time champion.
“Maddy VanDyke showed what kind of player she is,” Heethuis said. “She got a little dinged up, but I couldn’t be prouder of her.”
Defense has been the key all season for Unity Christian, which had shutouts in 10 of 18 regular-season games. The Crusaders became even stingier in the tournament, posting shutouts in six of seven games, including the title game. They allowed more than one goal just twice and gave up 11 goals total over 25 games.
Ponstein gave up only seven goals playing the majority of the minutes this spring and finished with 15 shutouts.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t generate more corner kicks, but we just defended and defended,” Heethuis said. “A lot of people could look at this game and say we got outplayed, but the fact of the matter is that we won. We’ll take it. We’re going to enjoy it.
“There are no style points in soccer.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Unity Christian's Maddy VanDyke (14) pushes the ball past a pursuing Flint Powers player Saturday. (Middle) The Crusaders celebrate their ninth championship.
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.)