No. 1-ranked Novi runs shutout streak to six games with 5-0 blanking of Howell
HOWELL — Five inches of white-painted, squared steel tubing was all that stood between the Howell Highlanders ending the shutout streak of the defending Division 1 champions at six games.
Having guessed to her own right on a first-half penalty kick, Novi goaltender Abbey Pheiffer watched out of the corner of her eye as the ball made a solid, metallic thunk off the far post, giving a quick smile of relief.
“That’s her fourth PK that she’s faced, and no one’s scored on her yet. The post was her friend — and that’s what you need,” Novi coach Todd Pheiffer said. “Sometimes when they read about ‘Hey, nobody’s scored on this goalie yet,’ that’s when it starts getting in their head.”
The sophomore keeper made the other four saves she needed to, and the defense got plenty of offensive support from Jessie Bandyk’s hat trick, as the No. 1-ranked Wildcats stayed unbeaten with a 5-0 win over the Highlanders in Tuesday’s Kensington Lakes Activities Association game at Howell’s Parker Middle School.
Thanks to that stifling defense, Pheiffer only had to handle the ball once in the second half, as the Wildcats ran their shutout streak to seven games. Novi hasn’t allowed a goal since the first half of its April 26 opener against Northville, outscoring opponents 24-0 in the interim.
“Our defenders take so much pride — because, you know, as defenders, you don’t get a lot of press. Everybody wants to know who scored, and who got the assist, and that’s why I even try — I’ll tweet out all that stuff, and I’m always promoting my defense, because I’m a big proponent of ‘Defense wins games,’” Todd Pheiffer said. "They do, they step on the field, and they’re like ‘We’re not letting anyone score today.’”
And for six straight game days, nobody has.
According to the MHSAA record book, there have been 22 streaks of consecutive shutouts of eight or longer. Trenton had a record 18 straight shutouts from April 18, 2016, to June 4, 2016.
The state record for shutouts in a season is held by Hudsonville Unity Christian, which shut out 24 of its 27 opponents in 2011, giving up just two goals on the season, before losing 1-0 to Flint Powers in the D3 championship game that year.
Novi’s 2005 squad shut out 19 of 25 opponents en route to the first of the program’s six Division 1 titles, while the 2007 Wildcats shut out 18 of 25 on the way to that year’s three-peat. The 2005 Novi squad allowed 10 total goals, the 2007 team just eight.
The most impressive part of the shutout streak might be the opponents they’ve blanked — this isn’t just a soft spot in the schedule, where they’re beating up on also-rans. Novi shut out then-No. 5 Brighton, following that up with a 2-0 shutout of then-No. 9 Plymouth 2-0, finishing off a three-game gauntlet with a 4-0 win over then-No. 6 Hartland.
“We’ve shut out five top-20 teams. They just take pride in it,” Todd Pheiffer said, noting that Howell is better than its record might indicate, as well. “When they changed the KLAA this year, and put seven of the best eight teams in the same division, there’s no night off. Even Howell — and I’ve told the Howell coach — if we play like we used to play, where we faced everyone in the KLAA once, they’d be middle of the pack, or towards the top. But unfortunately, they get stuck in the division with Canton, Plymouth, Salem, Brighton, Hartland and us, and it’s tough. They had a great tie against Brighton. Took Northville to the end of the game — Northville scored on a header.”
The Highlanders (0-5-2) had a few chances from sophomore Stephanie Strong, but their best chance to crack the Novi defense was on the penalty kick eight minutes in, after a hand ball in the box. Senior Maya Dvonch took the kick, and had Abbey Pheiffer fooled, but rang it solidly off the post.
And in the end, nothing crossed the goal line.
The Wildcats (7-0-0) are doing it with a revamped defense that has two new starters among the backs, and a new starter in goal. As a freshman last year, Abbey Pheiffer played in seven games or so as backup behind first-team all-state keeper Callie Rich, who is now off playing at Grand Valley.
“She’s done an amazing job, because it’s hard. Now you’re the starter of the defending state champs, and now people are expecting a lot, and she’s done a great job back there,” said Todd Pheiffer, her father, who’s watched her grow up from a kid who would naturally position herself in front of the net, before she even knew the concept of a goalkeeper, into a state champion as a freshman, and now a starter as a sophomore.
“She’s a very quiet kid. When you see her on the soccer field, she’s very vocal, and she’s actually come a long way from where she used to be. She’s a quiet, modest kid, and it’s about the team, and doing her job. She’s not the person that’s going to be on social media saying ‘Yeah, I got my sixth shutout today.’ She’s very humble when it comes to that. …
“She’s a sophomore, too, and now she’s playing with seniors, seniors who were in the state finals as freshmen, and then last year — she’s playing girls who have played at a very high level, so she just wants to come in and do her job. She’s stepped in nicely and become a great voice, great leader back there, keeping them organized.”
She’s got help keeping the backs on task, as well, from a pair of veteran defenders, both honorable mention all-staters a year ago.
“We had two defenders coming back: Lauren Calhoun has been a starting center back since she was a freshman, and Eva Burns was a starting back as a freshman, and last year as a sophomore. But we had to fill some gaps. So that’s what it is,” Todd Pheiffer said. “Nevada Larson has stepped in — she’s never played center back before; she was a center-mid(fielder) for us last year, so I moved her back there. Sarah (Katinas), who played right back, had never been a back before. She was a forward, but I like how she gets forward. So I’ve been teaching them ‘This is what your job is.’ And they take such pride in doing such a good job back there, I think that’s motivating them even more, because they know they’re playing with two great defenders in Lauren and Eva, and they don’t want to let them down.”
Avery Fenchel’s goal just 52 seconds into the game put Novi on the board, then Bandyk scored the first of her three four minutes later, beating the Howell keeper inside the far post to make it 2-0, and it stayed that way for the rest of the half.
Ten minutes into the second half, Riley Balconi finished off a free kick by Fenchel to make it 3-0, then Bandyk scored back-to-back goals six minutes apart — pounding in a rebound that spun past the Howell keeper, then deflecting one off the underside of the crossbar as she slipped to the ground — to make it 5-0 with 14:06 left, closing out the scoring.
The Wildcats start their second trip through the KLAA West on Thursday, visiting Northville, the only team to score on them to date.