By Keith Dunlap
Special for Second Half
WILLIAMSTON – The first unexpected development in the eyes of many was that the game was about to go into overtime.
The next unexpected development was that it didn’t.
Finally, the last unexpected development was that the team many figured would take home the runner-up trophy this time emerged as champion once again.
Such was the story of the 2018 MHSAA Division 1 girls soccer championship game at Williamston High School.
A heavy favorite to win its first championship after three prior losses in the title game, it instead was more Finals heartbreak for Grand Blanc, which saw perennial power Novi add its sixth girls soccer title trophy since 2005 with a 1-0 victory over the Bobcats.
Sophomore Avery Fenchel was the hero for the Wildcats (19-5-1), as she scored the only goal of the game with 3:29 remaining after she took advantage of a miscommunication by Grand Blanc defenders inside their goal box.
What seemed like a routine ball in front of the goal was botched by the Bobcats, and Fenchel took advantage by firing the ball into the open net to send her team into a wild celebration and Grand Blanc players to the ground in dejection.
“I was just running after it, and it just went into the back of the goal,” Fenchel said. “I just turned around and ran towards my team. I was so excited.”
With seven players signed or committed to Division I college programs, many felt Grand Blanc would have the game well in hand by the time the waning minutes of regulation rolled around.
But Novi’s defense was firm throughout, and overtime seemed imminent before Fenchel’s goal signaled a much sooner ending.
Grand Blanc entered the playoffs after winning the Kensington Lakes Activities Association Gold championship, while Novi finished third in the league. Novi lost to Grand Blanc in their regular-season meeting, 3-1, prompting some adjustments heading into the rematch.
“We kept having our outside forwards drop down more,” Novi head coach Todd Pheiffer said. “Their forwards never go back, and their defenders never really push up. It was finding that space in between the defense and midfielders.
“One thing we worked on at practice is whenever we are defending, it looks like a 4-5-1 (formation). When we are on the attack, it’s a 4-3-3. Just transitioning between those formations. It’s the first time we’ve ever done it, and we worked on it in practice the past two days. The girls did a great job.”
Grand Blanc ended up holding a 13-10 edge in shots, but many were wayward of the goal and the Bobcats had trouble in general getting serious scoring chances against Novi’s defense.
Each team hit a crossbar during the game, but the one miscue by Grand Blanc in the final minutes turned out to be the difference.
“I feel terrible for them,” Grand Blanc head coach Greg Kehler said. “It was just a little miscommunication back there on really a harmless ball between our defenders and goalkeeper. But that is just one play in an 80-minute game. We had our chances, but we didn’t take advantage of them to get that lead and (not) have a situation like that arise.”
Each team is filled with non-senior starters and contributors, so a rematch in next year’s playoffs could be in the forecast.
But for the present time, Novi relished being in the rare role of underdog.
“The girls had a little chip on their shoulder because the press said the entire week that this trophy was Grand Blanc’s,” Pheiffer said. “It was theirs. Everyone was picking against us, and that’s how this whole season has been. This has been a year of redemption for these girls.”
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VIDEO: With just over three minutes to play, Novi's Avery Fenchel picks up a loose ball in front of the goal and scores the only goal of the Division 1 Girls Soccer Final.
PHOTOS: (Top) Novi’s Julia Stadtherr (20) embraces teammate Avery Fenchel after the latter’s goal gave her team the lead in Friday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) Grand Blanc’s Samantha Lewis (8) gets her head on the ball just above Fenchel.