Novi (Mich.) goalie Abbey Pheiffer leapt in the air like she had done thousands of times in her soccer career.
She grabbed the ball and on her way down was clipped at the ankle by an opposing player, which had happened many times.
But this time when she landed, her foot went one way and her knee went the other.
“I’ve gotten hurt before in games, but when I went down I knew something was different,” said Pheiffer. “Usually I get right back up and keep playing but I couldn’t move my knee.”
She had torn her ACL, and her sophomore season was finished. She was forced to watch from the sidelines as Novi ascended as one of the best teams in the country, ranked No. 3 in the Super 25 and No. 1 on Top Drawer Soccer.
Meanwhile, Novi freshman Sammy Maday was on her way home from the junior varsity game when Pheiffer was hurt, and she didn’t learn of the injury until the following day.
“I felt bad for Abbey,” Maday said. “I knew the team was focused going into districts. I was just worried for the future and wanted to know that Abbey was OK. Mostly just concern for Abbey.”
But then something strange popped into Maday’s head.
What if …
“I had thoughts about what if I tried to step in and tried to play goalie again,” she said. “But I never thought it would actually happen.”
Maday quickly dismissed the notion because she hadn’t played goalie in almost three years. Plus, she was on the JV team.
But Novi coach Todd Pheiffer, Abbey’s father, saw the potential, and at that afternoon’s practice Maday found herself playing goalie again.
“We had two JV keepers, but I don’t think at that point anyone was ready to step in those shoes,” Todd Pheiffer said. “Sammy had played varsity basketball so she had been a varsity athlete as a freshman so she’s kind of played in that level game.”
Game No. 8 for Maday as the goalie for the Division 1 defending state champion comes Wednesday when Novi takes on Grand Rapids Forrest Hills Central at Holt at 6 p.m. in a state semifinal game.
Losing a goalie is one thing, but losing Pheiffer almost a month ago was something else. She was in the midst of a brilliant season, recording 16 shutouts, allowing only three goals while saving 85 of 88 shot attempts, including all four penalty kicks.
“She was having a remarkable season,” said Todd Pheiffer. “She came into the season as a top 10 goaltender. By that time in the season, to me, she was definitely a top two or three in the state.”
Her loss meant the Wildcats (26-0-1) approached games with a different strategy.
“We kind of had to change how we played,” Todd Pheiffer said. “We’re playing a little more conservative on defense. At that point we had given up 88 shots, but we took a lot of chances. Our outside backs would go forward; we did a lot of things.”
Now, Priority No. 1 is keeping the ball away Maday.
“I’ve stepped it up a couple of notches,” said Lauren Calhoun, who teams with Nevada Larson as the center backs on defense. “I’d say I was fine before, but now I have that in the back of my mind to be careful in case anything does get past me.”
Maday was a solid goalie growing up, but while playing for her club team, she desperately wanted out of the net as she neared high school.
“I had been on a team where they were just amazing,” she said. “We won every game like 7-0. There was never a shot on goal, never a goal kick, never a punt. There was never a time where the ball went anywhere near the box.
“I kind of got bored just sitting back there. I wanted to move around and create things.”
Maday played a variety of positions this spring, searching for the perfect fit.
“I kind of played all over on my JV team,” she said. “Coach had me playing everywhere, really .. everywhere but goalie.”
Above everything, Maday is a good athlete, which was important for Pheiffer. He didn’t need someone who could win a game for the team, he wanted someone who wouldn’t lose a game.
“We were looking for someone who could make the simple save,” he said. “We didn’t expect her to make the breakaway save, the miraculous save. Our defense needed to step up and they have.”
Maday has allowed only one goal through seven games in net, and it came in a 2-1 district final victory over Brighton.
It didn’t take Maday long to adjust to being a freshman on varsity. The upperclassmen went out of their way to make her feel like a genuine part of the team.
“We all welcomed her in,” said junior sensation Avery Fenchel, who has scored 24 goals and has committed to Ball State. “She was a great person to step up in that spot. She was a little nervous the first game because she hadn’t played goal in a long time. But after that first game she gained confidence and she’s doing a lot better.”
Senior attacking center Jessie Bandyk, who will play at Ferris State, acknowledged soccer is a team game and losing one person doesn’t end a season. Yet, she admires the way Maday has handled the sudden position switch.
“Sammy’s been doing great for us,” she said. “Coming off the junior varsity position is probably super nerve racking for her and she’s doing phenomenal.”
While she awaits surgery, Abbey Pheiffer has become an assistant coach of sorts. She watches Maday like a hawk, offering advice and observations of upcoming opponents.
“I give Sammy pointers and I cheer on my team from the sidelines,” she said. “I’m so proud of my team for making it as far as they have and playing their hearts out and I know my defense has stepped it up big time ever since that happened.”
Novi was leading, 1-0, in the game Pheiffer was injured and wound up winning, 3-2. Maday took over in net the following game and Calhoun has seen a steady improvement.
“It was a little chaotic and crazy in the game Abbey was hurt and I will admit I was a little nervous, but we’re past that now,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got Sammy and she is doing amazing. She’s working every day at practice and getting better and better.”
Maday finally understands her teammates don’t see her as a liability in net, and she has improved enough that nerves aren’t an issue (a big part of that is how she has meshed with her teammates).
“They trust me enough to pass it back to me and to shield it when I get the ball,” Maday said. “We’ve gained a lot of trust between me and Lauren and Nevada. All three of us have gained so much trust in each other.”
Although she is thrilled to be the goalie on the top-rated team in the nation, Maday is more than willing to hand the job back to Abbey Pheiffer next season.
But until then, Pheiffer is the team’s chief cheerleader and Maday is the goalie.
“Soccer is my sport; soccer is something I can’t live without,” Pheiffer said. “At this point I’m like, life happens. It is what it is. It sucks right now, but Sammy’s been doing a great job and we’re just going to keep rolling and it’s going to be good.”