Novi coach Chris Housey looks on as Novi goes head-to-head with Howell High School Feb. 2 at Novi High School.

Novi coach Chris Housey looks on as Novi goes head-to-head with Howell High School Feb. 2 at Novi High School.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Wildcats gear up for state tournament through grueling KLAA West

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Novi Note | Published February 6, 2024

 Senior Thad Lawler takes a jump shot.

Senior Thad Lawler takes a jump shot.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


NOVI — When it comes to physicality, defensive prowess or just overall grit, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a league that embodies those traits better than the Kensington Lakes Activities Association West.

For Novi boys basketball, the KLAA West has been a never-ending nightmare the past several seasons.

After reaching the Division 1 state semifinals and placing second in the league in 2018, Novi has been in the middle of the pack or below since.

Even after the regular season, the Wildcats couldn’t shake their league opponents, as they’ve been continuously matched up in district play.

But this year has been different for Novi, and if history has a way of repeating itself, they could be in for a state tournament run.

“We knew the league is a grind regardless of what year it is or who you’re playing,” Novi coach Chris Housey said. “Every team is tough, and that’s kind of built in. I can guarantee you every year that we have 14 games where we’re going to have a grind and be prepared for the tournament. That part isn’t necessarily a concern in our preparation for March, but I want to prepare us for the league.”

Novi (10-6) is currently tied for second in the West, where five teams are within one game of grabbing the runner-up spot, trailing first-place Canton by four games.

If Novi stays the course, its first winning season since 2018 could be on the horizon, and it’s courtesy of a heavily veteran group.

“These guys are a unique group in the sense of this being the first time we haven’t had an underclassman on the roster,” Housey said. “As a result, both our senior and junior class have been playing together since third or fourth grade. They already had that built-in camaraderie and chemistry. It’s almost like a strength-in-numbers approach.”

The team bond flexes its muscles on the defensive side of the court, where every KLAA game seems to take shape.

Defense isn’t a mentality for the Wildcats — it’s the only way they know how to operate on a basketball court.

It isn’t just something that Housey prioritizes with this group. The hard-nosed approach is almost like a tradition passed from each graduating class.

This year, it’s up to seniors Boden Fernsler, Thad Lawler, Zack Knoll, Nolan Thompson, Alex Smith and Sahil Devulapalli to continue it.

“Even when Thad (Lawler) and I were getting pulled up the end of our freshman year, we were kind of taught how to do it the right way by those (senior) guys,” Fernsler said. “The general rules and principles of defense have been exactly the same now. Like coach (Housey) says: even when you’re playing pickup (games), you just do it that way because it’s ingrained in your mind that that’s just how you play defense. I think that’s what we’ve always stressed for Novi basketball. We can’t play it any other way.”

From the starting five to the role players, everyone buys into what Novi basketball is all about.

Lawler does all the little things a coach would want a center to do, setting screens, controlling the paint and grabbing boards. Thompson is the Wildcats’ defensive spark plug off the bench alongside junior Michael Schave, who’s become an elite-level defender night in and night out.

Lawler said the team’s ability to rely on each other has been the difference-maker this season.

“Teamwork has probably been our best trait,” Lawler said. “We have a lot of unselfish guys, and sometimes that can hurt us, but a lot of times it helps us on offense and defense to help push the ball in transition.”

Offensively, it’s a junior-led group headlined by guard Aaron Lauer, guard Brendan Lynch and forward Chase LeFevre, who are all averaging more than seven points per game this season. Fernsler and Knoll have also been consistent contributors in scoring for Novi.

Lauer, who currently leads the team in scoring, forced his way onto the varsity scene last year after impressing Housey on the junior varsity team.

The junior class made waves in a local youth league in eighth grade, catching the eye of Housey, who made it a priority to keep them together for varsity.

Fernsler said it was a smooth transition meshing the playing styles of the junior and senior classes.

“My brother is a junior, and he used to play basketball with a lot of these guys when they were a lot younger,” Fernsler said. “They’re just really good at sharing the ball and being crisp on offense. Them coming in here is seamless, because they’re used to playing in different situations where they’ve lost guys to injury or to not playing basketball anymore. They’re very capable of fitting right in with us, who have been here for a while, and vice versa. I think we’re capable of fitting in with them because we’ve played some different styles with different kinds of players in the past.”

With five games left and trailing Canton by four for first in the KLAA West, the Wildcats will need a miracle to catapult themselves to the top spot in the league.

Regardless, Novi basketball is seeing its strongest season in the past few years, and from being battle-tested to holding a strong chemistry as lifelong friends, there’s no telling the run the Wildcats can make in the state tournament.

“I feel like there is some urgency because our sophomore year was a rough year,” Fernsler said. “Last year got a little bit better, but I always felt like our senior year was going to be the most fun basketball season I had here at Novi as a varsity player. So far it has been, but I think we could be a lot better and we could compete for something.”