2018 Champ Novi No Longer Overlooked

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

May 2, 2019

NOVI – Perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise that Novi won the MHSAA Division 1 girls soccer championship last season.

Sure, Grand Blanc, ranked No. 1 at the time, was the favorite – an overwhelming favorite by some estimations. That opinion alone places added pressure on the team that’s expected to win and, yes, Novi was the recipient of a Bobcats defensive miscue on the game-winning goal late in its 1-0 victory.

What is apparent is that many overlooked the Wildcats. Forget about the five losses they suffered during the season. No program plays a more competitive schedule, and much can be said of a team’s mental toughness after having faced high-level teams week after week. Novi caught fire at the right time and allowed just three goals over its seven tournament games.

Rest assured, no one will overlook Novi this season as the Wildcats are 8-0 and ranked No. 1 entering the month of May.

Todd Pheiffer is in his fifth season as head coach, and the 1992 Novi graduate is used to winning. He spent nine seasons at Ann Arbor Huron and guided the River Rats to the program’s only title (in Division 1) in 2008. He was an assistant coach under Brian O’Leary at Novi when the Wildcats won MHSAA Division 1 titles in 2010 and ’11. Novi has won six MHSAA titles in girls soccer, the most of any program at the Division 1/Class A level.

Pheiffer lives and breathes soccer. He’s coached the boys team at Novi since 2016 and he also coaches a club team. His first boys team at Novi reached the Division 1 Semifinals before losing to East Kentwood. Last season Novi lost in overtime to Detroit Catholic Central, 3-2, in a District Final. His daughter, Abbey, a sophomore, is the starting goal keeper after serving as the back-up. Todd Pheiffer and his wife, Michele, also have a son, Zachary, who plays on a U12 travel team. The Pheiffers are also math teachers – Todd at Novi, Michele at rival Northville.

Todd Pheiffer didn’t begin his professional career in education. After graduating from University of Michigan, he entered the computer software business but found that field unfulfilling. He went back to school and received his teaching degree in 2009 (from Eastern Michigan) before earning a master’s in athletic administration and educational leadership from Wayne State University. He spent a year teaching at St. Clair Shores Lakeview before going to Salem for a half-dozen years and then to Novi in 2015.

“It just kind of worked out,” he said. “I thought I’d go into computers and then be an attorney. I don’t make the money I used to, but I love what I do.”

Novi lost to Brighton in the Districts in Pheiffer’s first season with the girls team, then reached the Division 1 Semifinals the next before losing to Rochester Hills Stoney Creek – which went on to win the MHSAA title. Novi then lost to Plymouth in a Regional Semifinal in 2017 before breaking through last season.

“We had a few players back from the team that lost to Stoney Creek in a shootout, and I told them we could have won it that year,” Pheiffer said. “Last year we lost the last two games of the regular season and my captains got the team together and told them that’s not it, that’s not how we’re going to end our season. They got them back up and motivated. We knew if we won our District that we would host the Regionals and have a good shot at going far.”

The Wildcats received additional incentive from another source. After Novi defeated Troy, 4-1, in the Semifinal and Grand Blanc held on to defeat Midland, 1-0, words were said that provided locker room material.

“The girls were on their phones with each other saying did you see what the Midland coach said,” Pheiffer said.

Jessie Bandyk is a four-year starter as an attacking center-midfield and she clearly recalls what took place between the Semifinals and Final.

“We saw things in the paper, that Grand Blanc was a sure thing (to win)” she said. “Pretty much everybody felt that way. It gave us motivation. Honestly, I think we could have done it either way.”

That’s confidence. And that confidence is back despite Novi losing five senior starters to graduation, including goal keeper Callie Rich, and two defenders. Abbey Pheiffer’s play in goal has provided a significant boost. Abbey started seven games as a freshman, so she does have valuable varsity experience. Over the first eight games this season, she’s stopped 39 of 41 shots with six shutouts.

“I definitely credit our defense,” Abbey said. “Our team chemistry has been really good this season.

“Last year was a lot of fun. Novi always has a big target on (its) back. Now that we’re state champs and doing so well, they want to give us that loss. I remember in scrimmages the other players talking about how they wanted to beat us.”

One of Novi’s best players is junior forward Avery Fenchel. She has a knack for scoring goals, and none was bigger than the one she scored against Grand Blanc in the 2018 Final. Fenchel led Novi in goals and points her first two seasons, and has eight goals and seven assists so far this season.

“She has a great field awareness and is very unselfish when she has the ball,” Coach Pheiffer said. “Although she loves scoring goals, she is always willing to make that extra pass when it’s the best option.”

Not to be overlooked is the play of its defenders, notably returning starters Lauren Calhoun, a senior center back, and sophomore Eva Burns, an outside back.

“Everyone wants to talk about who scored the goals and who had the assists,” Pheiffer said. “Our defense is definitely a strength.

“This season is tougher. There’s added pressure. We’re No. 1 now. Last year nobody looked at us. Our girls are motivated by that. We have a brutal schedule and play in a tough league (Kensington Lakes Activities Association). Plymouth is ranked No. 7 and Hartland is No. 4, and we play them both twice. Northville and Brighton are in the top 20 and Canton, which tied (No. 2-ranked) Grand Blanc isn’t even ranked.” 

For Bandyk and the other four seniors who start, this is their final hurrah, their last chance not only to win a title but to play together as teammates.

“There’s a group of us who play travel together, and having chemistry outside of high school helps,” she said. “We set some goals before the season, not only to win a state title but to have more fun and to make the most of this season.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at tmarkowski@statechampsnetwork.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Novi’s Jessie Bandyk moves play ahead during last year’s championship game win against Grand Blanc. (Middle) Abbey Pheiffer lines up to send the ball downfield this spring. (Below) Wildcats coach Todd Pheiffer mulls things over during the Final. (Middle photo courtesy of Novi athletic department.)

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.)