Unyielding 'D' Helps Drive Norse Title Hopes

June 5, 2019

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Reyna Johnson and Kendal Hoppa were always forwards growing up playing soccer, scoring goals and enjoying all the high-fives and backslaps that came with it.

So, forgive them if they were slightly offended last year when they were asked to move to defense.

“I’ve played forward my whole career, and then was told I wouldn’t be playing there anymore,” explained Johnson. “You know you’re still a good player, but it was an adjustment, for sure.”

It was also a stroke of genius by 12th-year North Muskegon coach Ryan Berends, who knew Johnson and Hoppa had the perfect combination of tenacity, toughness, experience and maturity to handle the move.

Fast forward to today and the duo of Johnson and Hoppa, along with fellow senior defensive standout Ayla Pitts, form an almost impenetrable “blue wall” for the Norsemen, who are 19-2 and ranked No. 1 in Division 4.

Snipers Sophie Mueller (three goals) and Hope Johnson (two goals), who took those spots in the forward positions, did their thing by pressuring the goal from the outset in a 5-0 victory Tuesday over Grandville Calvin Christian in a Division 4 Regional Semifinal game in Muskegon.

NM next faces Houghton Lake, a 2-1 winner Tuesday over Elk Rapids, in Thursday’s 6 p.m. Regional Final.

“That’s what we asked the girls to do – come out insanely strong the first 10-15 minutes and send a message,” said Berends, who is assisted by Logan Pitts, Jeff Grevel and Kim Gorbach. “We have a lot of speed and a lot of attacking power.”

While longtime rival Muskegon Western Michigan Christian packed in its defense against NM in last week’s District Final, Calvin Christian came out and challenged the Norse from the start.

That strategy gave creative sophomore center midfielder Audrey Wilson and fellow mids Abby Grevel and Sophia Schotts the opportunities to pick their moments and get the ball ahead to attackers Johnson, Mueller and Gwenna Pitts.

North Muskegon peppered standout Calvin Christian senior keeper Alyssa Kiekover with four shots in the game’s opening five minutes, but weren’t able to break through until Johnson got behind the defense and then used her patience and ball-handling ability to get in the right spot and score the game’s first goal at 26:36.

That opened the floodgates somewhat, as Mueller used her blazing speed to score two minutes later, then Johnson added a left-footed goal at the 10:25 mark – proving she is nearly 100 percent after missing much of the regular season with a broken left ankle.

The Norse led 3-0 at halftime and added two more second-half tallies, finishing with a 20-4 edge in shots on goal.

North Muskegon is motivated to take the next step after losing a shootout heartbreaker last year to Kalamazoo Christian in the Division 4 Semifinals. The Norsemen led 1-0 late in that game, before allowing a goal with four minutes remaining as K-Christian forced overtime.

“We are motivated, but we are definitely focused on one game and one goal at a time,” said Hoppa, noting the Norse finished unbeaten in West Michigan Conference play for the fourth-straight year (40-0). “We know we can do it, but we also know that we need to work for it.”

The Norse had a record-setting defensive year last spring, when they won a Regional title for the first time since 2007. NM finished the 2018 regular season with a whopping 136-1 scoring edge over its opponents, including a string of 16 consecutive shutouts, the third-longest such streak in girls soccer state history.

Pitts is the leader of this spring’s defense, which returned Johnson and Hoppa and also features talented freshman Grace Vanderwoude, who replaced departed Emma Berends. The Norse also don’t miss a beat when defensive subs Molly Stewart and Elysia Maurer enter the game.

The final line of defense is imposing 6-foot sophomore keeper Syann Fairfield, a first-year starter whose aggressive style and powerful leg adds another dimension for NM.

“Our team chemistry is really the key to our team,” said Pitts, a captain along with Hoppa. “Everyone knows their role, and everyone is all about team-first. We’ve always been that way.”

Berends believes the experience of making it to the Semifinals last season for the first time in 11 years has paid – and will continue to pay – big dividends for the Norsemen this spring.

“Last year, we had to keep telling ourselves, ‘We can do this. We can do this,’” said Berends, who has a daughter, senior midfielder Grace Berends, on this year’s team. “Because of the run we had last year, it’s a different mindset. This year, it’s ‘We are going to do this.’”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at kendra.tom@gmail.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kendal Hoppa, left, and Reyna Johnson are among defensive standouts for top-ranked North Muskegon. (Middle) Ayla Pitts is another top defender for the Norsemen, and a captain with Hoppa. (Photos by Tami Pitts.)

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.)