By Andrew Johnson

NORTH MUSKEGON – The North Muskegon girls soccer program has accomplished a lot of impressive things over the past few years, but now the Norse have entered unchartered territory, with the ultimate prize at their fingertips.

The Norse are set to take on Royal Oak Shrine Catholic in the Division 4 state soccer finals at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Michigan State University. They earned a ticket to the title game by beating Grandville Calvin Christian 2-0 on Wednesday in the semifinals. That victory avenged two one-goal losses in the semifinals, in 2018 and 2019.

Hope Johnson changes direction during North Muskegon’s game against Whitehall. Photo/Leo Valdez

“We have a very tough challenge,” said North Muskegon’s first-year head coach Caleb Parnin about playing the defending Division 4 champions, who won the 2019 state tournament. “It’ll be a huge test. But we feel like we’re peaking at the right time.”

Peaking at the right time may be an understatement. North Muskegon has outscored its five postseason opponents 31-1. That says as much about the Norse defense it does about the scoring attack.

“I think part of the reason is we have some real multi-sport athletes back there,” said Parnin about his team’s defenders. “We got competitive gamers who can come out and play. They’re not afraid of big moments, and that’s something that’s impressive about North Muskegon kids.”

Part of the reason the Norse defenders are so good is because they get to practice every day against some of the best offensive players in the state, who happen to be their teammates. If they can keep girls like Hope Johnson from scoring very much, opponents stand little chance.

“It really helps,” said Parnin about his defense facing an offense that has scored 126 goals in 21 games, for a six goal per-game average. “They’ve listened and had some good questions. They’ve really embraced growing, and it’d be hard to pick out a weakness right now.”

Natalie Pannucci chases down a pass for North Muskegon. Photo/Jason Goorman

Anchoring the back end is senior goalkeeper Syann Fairfield, who was a part of the 2018 and 2019 North Muskegon teams that fell in the Division 4 semifinals.

“We’re extremely excited,” said Fairfield about the opportunity to finally play for a state championship. “This is our shot, and we’ve really pushed hard after not playing last year. We’ve been pushing as a senior group, knowing this is our last time.”

If Fairfield does win a championship with her Norse teammates, she’ll tie her father Shane Fairfield, the well-known Muskegon High School varsity football coach, who has one state title.

“My dad has been to so many state finals, and I’ve just been around the culture,” Fairfield said. “Now I’m ready to be at one of my own, and I’m glad to have my team there with me. (Her dad) has already talked to me about it, and I’ve always just listened. He’s always said, ‘Go out with a bang, because it’s the last game.’”

If Fairfield does get her own title on Saturday, she’ll be sure to make sure her dad remembers they’re tied.

“Oh, for sure, I’ll let him know about it,” she said.

The Norse offense has gotten plenty of attention, because it’s downright deadly for opponents, with four players who have scored at least 18 goals this season.

Johnson leads the Norse with 37 goals and 22 assists while Emily Olsen has 21 goals and 22 assists. Audrey Wilson has 18 goals and 15 assists while Natalie Pannucci has 18 goals and nine assists.

“They don’t care at all who scores,” said Parnin about his players’ unselfish attitude. “They love each other and want to play for each other.”

At the beginning of the season, North Muskegon set a goal to get better every day, in the hope that constant improvement would lead to a state title.

“We looked at film last night and every girl has grown,” said Parnin about the improvement. “We talked about that at the beginning of the season, if we got a little better every day, we’d be good. I think we’re playing much better soccer.”

While some teams may be nervous before the biggest game of their career, Parnin said his team showed no signs of butterflies at practice on Thursday.

“The girls are really excited,” he said. “They’re ready for another challenge that they’ve never experienced before. We took it easy and did some yoga and team building stuff, but they’re healthy and itching to get back out there.”