By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Scoring goals in a championship game is never easy.
But Novi sure made it look that way in Saturday’s Division 1 title game at DeMartin Stadium. The Wildcats had four players score at least once – including senior Jessie Bandyk, who netted two – and cruised past Plymouth, 5-0, to take home their second straight Finals championship.
The five goals were the most that have been scored in a Division 1 championship game.
“These seniors, knowing that this was their last game, they were given a gift,” Novi head coach Todd Pheiffer said. “When you start the state tournament, you never know when your last practice is going to be. You show up for the game the next day, you hope you win and get to practice the next day. When you get to the state championship game, you know when it’s your last practice.”
There will be no more practices this season for the Wildcats – nor games. There’s nothing left to prove. Novi wrapped up an unbeaten season, finishing 28-0-1, becoming just the second team in state history – along with Hudsonville Unity Christian in 2006 – to win 28 games and finish unbeaten.
Despite Saturday’s dominating offensive showing, Pheiffer spent a lot of time after the game praising his defense.
“I cannot tell you how proud I am of my back four,” said the coach, speaking about senior Lauren Calhoun, juniors Nevada Larson and Sarah Katinas and sophomore Eva Burns. “My back four defenders, my goalkeepers, they just pride themselves every single game about limiting the other team’s shots and giving up no goals.”
The Wildcats allowed just eight goals this season and picked up 23 shutouts – the second most in state history. On Saturday, they allowed just five shots, two on goal. They outshot Plymouth 25-5.
Junior Avery Fenchel scored the first goal of the game for Novi, off a pass from Katinas, just before the midway point in the first half. Katinas slid a pass through a pair of Plymouth defenders, finding Fenchel, who made a stop-move to her right before shooting back left near post to beat the goalkeeper for a 1-0 lead.
The game stayed that way until the final three minutes of the half. That’s when Novi senior Lexi Whalen took a long pass from Fenchel and dribbled to her left to set up a 20-yard strike to make it 2-0.
The Wildcats would add three more goals in the second half to pull away for the win – their third over Plymouth this season. Senior Julia Stadtherr poked in a pass from junior Michelle Jecmen to make it 3-0 with just under 28 minutes left in the game. Bandyk then did her magic over the game’s final 26 minutes.
“We came into this game like it was the first time we had played (Plymouth), and we gave it everything we had,” said Bandyk, who scored both of her goals off passes from Stadtherr. “Speaking as a senior, this was our last 80 minutes playing high school soccer. We all gave it our all, and we just connected and put the ball in the back of the net.”
Freshman Sammy Maday made two saves in goal for Novi. Sophomore Abbey Pheiffer, the team’s regular starter who was injured prior to the start of the tournament, finished up the game in goal to share in the shutout.
Plymouth’s struggles started early, as during the first half it was outshot 15-1 and did not put a shot on goal.
“We played them a lot tougher the last two times. But they’re a strong team,” Plymouth head coach Jeff Neschich said. “When we got down, we kind of lost our composure.”
Plymouth had just two shots on goal, those coming off the feet of senior Kennedy White and junior Lily Tiplady during the second half. The Wildcats finished the season 19-5-1. They had a wild postseason run which included a pair of comeback victories.
“We had two playoff games where we came from two goals down to tie them up and eventually win them (Canton and Troy),” Neschich said. “We couldn’t keep pulling the rabbit out of the hat. But the accomplishments they had were incredible. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Novi has now won seven Division 1 titles, all since 2005, and is a perfect 7-0 in its championship game appearances. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 all season by the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association.
“All we kept hearing at the beginning of the year was, ‘They’re the defending champ, everyone wants to knock you off,’” Todd Pheiffer said. “We graduated 10 seniors from last year’s team. We are not the same team as last year. We had a good corps coming back, some great senior leadership back, but we were a different team. This was about these girls winning their state championship. I’m just so proud of how this team’s played all year long.”
PHOTOS: Novi keeper Sammy Maday sends the ball downfield during the Division 1 Final on Saturday. (Middle) Novi's Lexi Whalen (12) and Plymouth's Audrey Kananen work to get possession.
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.)