Novi – It’s one thing to be known as the defending state champions, but quite another to be known as the top soccer team in the nation.
The Novi girls soccer team owns both of those impressive titles.
Novi won the Division 1 state championship last year, defeating a Grand Blanc team the had outscored its opponents 25-0 in postseason play before Avery Fenchel scored the lone goal in Novi’s 1-0 state title victory.
It was Novi’s sixth state title in girls soccer but first since 2011.
Novi (19-0-1) lost several key players from its 19-5-1 state championship team, but returned the bulk of its team, including Fenchel – a Ball State commit and Novi’s leading scorer (22 goals) – Riley Balconi (Miami of Ohio), first-team all-stater Jessie Bandyk (Ferris State), Lauren Calhoun (Indiana State), Julia Stadtherr, Lexi Whalen and Eva Burns.
The Wildcats have been ranked No. 1 all season in the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches poll and they are No. 1 in the nation according to the TopDrawerSoccer.com Spring FAB 50 rankings.
“It’s a fabulous accomplishment for our team, really exciting for us, motivates us to play even better,” Fenchel said. “It has actually brought us closer as a team. We all feel like we can do what we set our minds to do, so I think that’s really good for our team.”
Said senior Jessie Bandyk: “Honestly, coming off such a great season, being ranked No. 1 is a lot of pressure, but we take that and it’s our motivation. We keep pushing through every game. I think we’re doing a really good job and we’ve taken every challenge we’ve had, stand our ground and play hard. We get along so well on and off the field and that’s our strength.”
Novi is coached by Todd Pheiffer, who is in his fourth year of leading the program.
Pheiffer is a 1992 Novi grad who guided Ann Arbor Huron to the state championship in 2008 before moving on to Novi, where he was an assistant in 2010 and 2011 under Brian O’Leary.
O’Leary guided Novi to five state titles (2005, ’06, ’07, ‘10, ’11) in a seven-year span.
Pheiffer credits his seniors for much of the success of this year’s team.
“This group of seniors have been through a lot,” Pheiffer said. “They came in as freshman in 2016 and most of them were starters – that’s the year we made it all the way to state semis and lost to Stoney Creek in a PK shootout.
“Then, last year they were a big reason we won the state championship. They have been through so much and have played at such a high level that they are showing the underclassmen the way.
“Every day in practice they are working hard, pushing each other to get better and they love each other. They are a team and they are fighting for each other.”
This season has been far different from a year ago, when Novi entered postseason play as an underdog.
“We do have some very talented players, but the fact that they are playing as a team, as well, is a credit to them and it’s a credit to the seniors for providing that leadership,” Pheiffer said. “Having that success last year, it builds confidence because we’ve been through it. Coming into this season was a little interesting because we’ve had that target right from the start. Last year really no one talked about us. Everyone knows Novi soccer is pretty good, but nobody talked about us. Last year, it was all Grand Blanc.
“This year everyone has been talking about us from the start and these girls have stepped up every single game. When one girl is having a bad game, someone else steps up.”
Pheiffer’s daughter Abbey was Novi’s starting goalkeeper before she suffered a knee injury.
“She got hurt in the Hartland game with 30 minutes left,” Pheiffer said. “We were up 2-0 at the time and ended up winning 3-2. We had to put a field player in goal because we didn’t have a backup.”
To take over in goal, Pheiffer promoted Novi’s JV keeper and another JV player who has previous goalie experience.
“Our goal is to limit the number of scoring opportunities,” Pheiffer said. “We hope that the players that are coming up – there’s a lot of pressure on them – that the goalies make the easy saves that they need to make and that we don’t give (opponents) the opportunity to get too close to our goal.”
Novi did just that on Senior Day on Thursday in Novi’s 3-0 win over Howell.
“Our goal was to limit the number of shots and (Howell) didn’t get a single shot on goal,” Pheiffer said.
Fenchel has 15 goals and 10 assists, Stadtherr has 14 goals and Bandyk has 10.
Pheiffer has made multiple moves that have paid off, including moving Fenchel, a junior, to center forward and junior Nevada Larson from center mid to center back.
“She has a lot of heart and a lot of passion,” said Pheiffer of Fenchel, who was named Allstate All-American and will be honored at the Major League Soccer All-Star game in Orlando this summer. “She plays center forward, but she never played center forward until I moved her there her freshman year. Jessie Bandyk is an attacking mid and Jessie is a year older.
“I told Avery when she was a freshman that we only play one attacking mid so I wanted her to play center forward. She said she never played center forward before and I told her I’d teach her. She has played center forward all three years and has been our leading goal scorer, and she didn’t play her last 10 games her freshman year due to a broken collarbone.”
Novi arguably plays in the toughest league in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association (KLAA) with Plymouth, Hartland and Livonia Stevenson also in the mix. Novi will play at Salem Saturday at 1 p.m. before hosting Walled Lake Western in a district opener on Thursday.
“I told our girls that it doesn’t matter what happens going forward, how many players in the entire country can say at one point that they were ranked the No. 1 team in the nation,” Pheiffer said. “Even if something would happen down the line and we don’t finish that way we were and that’s a tribute to the hard work these girls put into it. It’s been an incredible ride.”