Yunke Shares Soccer Across States, Seasons

By Pam Shebest
Special for

April 24, 2017

BANGOR — When it is spring, Dennis Yunke can be found coaching girls soccer in Bangor.

But in the fall, he spends three months in Minnesota as the Mankato West High School assistant varsity and head junior varsity coach.

Each position has resulted in unique experiences that he would not trade for anything.

When then-superintendent Ron Parker wanted to start a girls soccer team at Bangor High School, Yunke stepped up.

“It was a situation where I know quite a few people in the soccer culture, and at least four of them turned down the job so it fell to the old guy,” quipped Yunke, who had started club programs from scratch when he lived in Holland.

“I went out and got some good people to help me.”

The first season, Yunke had 25 girls on the team and “maybe one knew how to play soccer,” he said. “I had to go to a charity group in Holland and get totes full of cleats to give out to the girls because they were showing up for tryouts in sandals.

“They had never worn cleats, shin guards. They had played soccer in the backyard with their siblings, but none of them knew anything about soccer.”

That first season, eight years ago, the team won two games – both against junior varsity teams.

Three years ago, Yunke took the job in Mankato to be closer to his grandchildren.

“My two adult sons (Justin and Corey) live in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota and my two grandchildren (Lydia and Lauren) live there,” he said.

“The reason I was looking for something to do there is that when I called my boys and said I wanted to come to stay for a couple weeks or a month, I sensed a lot of panic that neither one of them wanted Dad around for that long.”

The Minnesota girls season runs from Aug. 10 through Nov. 10 which fit perfectly with the Michigan soccer season. So Yunke started looking for a fall job. He discovered a few schools were looking for soccer coaches.

“Two days before their season started, the Mankato Scarlets called me and asked if I was still interested because the person they had selected had to back out,” he recalled.

“They were desperate and had to take the old guy.”

Last season, Class A Mankato ended the year with a 19-3 record, losing in the Minnesota state final.

“Since I arrived in 2014, neither the varsity nor JV has had a losing season,” Yunke said. “They are a talented group of dedicated, committed, hard-working girls.”

Yunke’s junior varsity team was 11-2 in the fall, scoring 89 goals and allowing just eight. In six games, opponents never got off a shot, Yunke said.

"Our JV has continued to thrive under Dennis' leadership,” Mankato varsity coach Chrissy Makela said. “We had a strong JV before he arrived, and he has continued that tradition.

“While that might seem an easy task, Dennis doesn't see these kids the other eight or nine months out of the year as he is in Michigan.”

She said Yunke brings passion and knowledge about the game to the program.

“He is constantly seeking new ideas and learning about the game,” she said. “Then he shares his ideas with the rest of the staff.

“He has some unique team-building exercises with his JV that are different than varsity. This way his team can distinguish themselves as a group, and whatever we do with varsity does not seem redundant to the players.”

Coaching in two states provides several challenges for Yunke, especially since his wife, DeeDee, a medical secretary, stays in Bangor. 

Living in a tent

Living arrangements posed a big problem since “they don’t pay enough money to go out and rent an apartment short-term,” he said.

“The first year, I actually camped in a campground in a tent and just loved it. As it got colder, one of the parents came up and said they wanted me to come stay with them.

“I stayed with them next year and last year stayed with the varsity coach. Essentially, I just throw myself out to look for a host family. I kind of hold a sign saying ‘Homeless Coach.’”

He gets back to Bangor at least once during the three fall months and uses email and social media to keep in touch.

“I remind the girls of any soccer events they may be interested in as well as keep an eye on the players who are playing fall and winter sports,” he said.

A Class C school, Bangor has no junior varsity team, so freshmen begin their high school careers on varsity.

Because of that lack of experience, Yunke started a feeder program in the middle school three years ago.

“Tony Keh took over the second year of middle school,” Yunke said. “He has solidified that middle school program. We have five very talented middle school players who will be freshmen next year.”

Mary Spade, Bangor’s athletic director, said Yunke loves soccer – and it shows.

“He brings years of experience, knowledge of the sport, dedication off the charts and loyalty and compassion for coaching,” she said. “He’s very dedicated.”

The Vikings lost five seniors, including leading scorer Maggie Ring (24 goals, 20 assists), from last year’s team that went 7-10.

“We lost the heart of the team,” Yunke said. “Our leading scorer, midfield leader and defensive leader.”

But this year’s team has started 4-1-1. Junior Madi McGuire leads with eight goals, senior Megan Watkins has seven and senior co-captain Janet Ibarra six.

Although “soccer is soccer,” Yunke said there are some big differences between his two teams.

“The difference has a lot to do culturally and socio-economically,” he said. “The girls in Mankato have more opportunities when it comes to clinics and training. They all play club soccer, they all go to camps in the summer.

“Sometimes we have to hold off on our tryouts because they’re in Europe playing soccer. They go for three or four weeks, going on tours and playing against European clubs. There’s just a lot of opportunities there that these (Bangor) girls just don’t have.”

'Soccer is Soccer'

“The level of competition (in Minnesota) is much higher,” he said. “Every game is a dog fight because you’re playing against a pretty level playing field.

“(In Michigan) it’s up and down. The Kalamazoo area schools have more club players. The kids are better funded. We don’t have that (in Bangor). What we do have is a really great fighting spirit. These girls have a lot of heart, and that’s what I like about them.”

Even the way the girls address their coaches is different.

“(In Bangor) they call me Coach,” he said. “In Minnesota they asked me what I wanted to be called. I said Coach because that’s what I’m used to being called.

“They said, Nah, we’re going to call you Dennis. They call the varsity coach Mac.”

The Bangor players also have chocolate milk, courtesy of the United Dairy Industry of Michigan. 

“They granted us with $1,100 for the season, and I go out and get the chocolate milk and give the girls a cooler full of chocolate milk every day," Spade said. "It’s very good for recovery. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the grant.”

Senior co-captain Gisella Lorenzo said the guaranteed refreshment also serves as good incentive.

“We have it after every practice and every game,” she said. “I think that’s what pushes us, and we look forward to the end of practice.”

Lorenzo was one of the girls who had never played soccer before trying out for the team as a freshman.

“I didn’t really know anything,” she said. “In the beginning of the season, Coach sets up drills and usually there are captains already set up.

“Coach and captains work together to show us how to pass balls and communicate with each other.”

Ibarra said Yunke uses 10 core values to bond the team.

“We do a lot of team bonding, and that really helps us work together as a team,” she said. “That’s very important. We really use those values throughout the season.”

Yunke said the Bangor community is a soccer community, and “our fans are great. I hope I can coach forever. I’m having a ball.”

Other seniors on the team are Brenda Garcia, Olivia Moore and Taylor Watkins.

Other juniors are Nina Ring and Sam Zordan.

Sophomores are Yasmeen Burton, Marilin Carrillo, Elena Guel and Laisha Ramirez. Freshmen are Maritza Barajas, Jennifer Garcia, Jocelyn Ponce, Jennifer Quinones, Bella Amarissa Serratos and Summer Torres.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bangor girls soccer coach Dennis Yunke shares a light moment with, from left, Gisella Lorenzo, Olivia Moore and Janet Ibarra. (Middle top) Yunke, Mankato West girls varsity coach Christina Makela, Bangor athletic director Mary Spade. (Middle below) Yunke walks the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis before Mankato West’s state championship game. (Below) Ibarra pushes the ball upfield during a game. (Bangor and Mankato soccer practice and game photos courtesy of Dennis Yunke.)

3-Sport Standout Sluss Gives Lenawee Christian All-State Boost for Every Season

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

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 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.)