EAST LANSING – Williamston made its third appearance in an MHSAA Girls Soccer Final on Saturday. And for the third time, the Hornets were seeking their first championship against longtime powerhouse Hudsonville Unity Christian.
Williamston had lost Finals to the Crusaders in overtime in 2008 and 1-0 in 2010. But consider any lingering Unity nightmares over for the Hornets.
Junior Breyer Fenech blasted in a shot off an assist from Kaley Douglass with 1 minute, 21 seconds to play as Williamston pulled out a heart-stopping 3-2 victory in the Division 3 championship game at Michigan State’s DeMartin Stadium.
“Kaley put it right on my foot,’’ said Fenech. “She and Liz (Bellinger) are both going to play in college. They are great players. They know how to play. I don’t play mid that much, but unfortunately one of our midfielders got hurt the last game. I kind of saw Kaley coming down and I saw an opening and I called for the ball, she was able to get it through and I put it away.’’
Said Douglass: “It was all her. She called for the ball, and I heard her immediately. I slid it through, and it was all her. If she hadn’t gotten my attention, I probably wouldn’t have known she was there. She was the one that finished it, and I’m so thankful she did.’’
The Hornets (17-2-1) entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in Division 1, and Unity Christian (21-2-1) was ranked No. 2.
Unity hadn’t lost since falling to Division 1 contender Hudsonville in the Crusaders’ season opener.
“Their second goal turned the game around,’’ said Unity coach Randy Heethius. “The winning goal was a thing of beauty. Give them a lot of credit. They are a good team. Obviously, we’re disappointed with the way the game turned out. We’re young. I think we have a chance to get back.’’
Super freshman Ava Lutke gave the Crusaders a 2-1 lead with her 26th goal of the season with just over 21 minutes left in regulation. It appeared to be enough.
However, the goal of the game was a 45-yard blast 11 minutes later from senior midfielder Bellinger, a free kick that landed in the right corner of the Unity net.
“It brought a lot of energy; I wasn’t even expecting that,’’ said Bellinger. “I was just trying to get one in there. I think it did bring our energy up. I practice that every single day, hitting balls and redoing it. It was exactly what I was hoping for. We were storming the net and it went in, which is what we were hoping for.’’
Hornets coach Steve Horn wasn’t surprised.
“We’ve been waiting for that,’’ he said of Bellinger. “That was a fantastic free kick. She hit that top shelf. We’ve seen that from Liz all year. We have some great players and some good role players. That was a coming out for Liz. I have been waiting for that for a few games.’’
And it fired up her teammates.
“When she hit that I said this isn’t over. We have 10 minutes left,’’ said Douglass.
The Crusaders entered Saturday having won 10 girls soccer Finals titles – the second-most of any school – with three runner-up finishes, but hadn’t been in a championship game since 2016 when they lost to Flint Powers Catholic.
Williamston’s Emma Gorsline, a junior midfielder, wasn’t at full strength because of a hamstring injury. She was one of seven players who had made either first- or second-team all-state or honorable mention in 2021.
It was amazing that Williamston goalie Abby Pieper was even playing, after suffering a concussion during hockey season and an eye injury that kept her from seeing for a month.
“I think I played about 10 games this year,’’ said a jubilant Pieper. “I had some vision loss. I started feeling better late April, early May. It was a quick season for me, but it paid off.’’
Junior forward Olivia Bosworth, with an assist from Jade Taylor, got the Crusaders on the board less than five minutes into the game to give Unity Christian a 1-0 lead.
A collision in front of the Crusaders' goal 6:05 into the game led to a Douglass penalty shot, which she drove into the net to tie the score at 1-1.
Both teams had chances over the final 33 minutes of the first half, but weren’t able to convert.
Lutke had a great shot to open the second half, but it was stopped by Pieper.
PHOTOS (Top) Williamston’s Kaley Douglass fires a penalty shot during Saturday’s Division 3 Final at DeMartin Stadium. (Middle) The Hornets celebrate during their first championship victory.
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.)