Mark Bonda gave a quick talk to his Indian Land girls’ soccer team March 10, but the backdrop separated this chat from hundreds of other similar ones.
The western Piedmont of North Carolina yawned behind Bonda, who was perched with his team atop the craggy northern corner of The Pinnacle, one of two towering peaks in Crowders Mountain State Park.
The Warriors’ mountain climbing was metaphoric in a way. They won the school’s first girls’ soccer state title in 2017 and return all but four players this season. Bonda comes up with a theme for his team each year and this year’s was “climbing the mountain.”
The theme took a literal turn when Bonda, an avid climber, decided to lead his team up to the 1,600-foot Pinnacle.
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“It was symbolic for us of how we need to get from the bottom all the way to the top, and what it took to get there,” Bonda said. “It kind of took what we did last season and transferred it over. We’ve got a new mountain, a new season.”
They left Indian Land at 7 a.m. Saturday morning and rode in a pickle-colored school bus to the state park 30 minutes west of Charlotte. The four-mile round trip hike would have been arduous enough, but Bonda threw in a few team-building curveballs to spice up the climb.
Samantha Ammann had her head wrapped so she couldn’t hear. Midway up the trail, Catherine Ouimet was blindfolded and her teammates had to shepherd her along the steep and root-riddled path. A number of the girls were concerned about Haley Havermann, who was acting much more glum than usual. Turns out her uncharacteristically negative attitude was part of Bonda’s master plan too. How would the team react if one of its members was having a bad day?
“I could hear them trying to cheer me up, trying to tell me jokes and I couldn’t respond positively,” Havermann said. “To see them trying it really made me feel good, but not being able to respond kind of sucked.”
Bonda’s longtime assistant coach, Josh Burgess, carried 20 or so iPhones up the trail in his backpack. No Snapchat or Instagram on this mountain.
The group chatted and giggled and labored and slid and tripped -- always the roots -- before reaching the base of the summit. The girls scaled a seven or eight-foot rock ravine -- you can imagine some teamwork required there -- before emerging from the forest at the top of the mountain. The group drank in gray skies and cool air, then made its way along a rocky and narrow path to the corner of the summit.
With a rock wall behind them and a view that stretched for miles in front -- and a long way down -- the group quieted as Bonda talked them about the hike halfway completed, and the season ahead.
Returning seniors Summer Bishop, Kailee Erwin and Emily Gerdes combined to score 56 goals last season, while keeper Emma Thompson kept 15 shutouts and made several stops during the Warriors’ penalty kick shootout win over Brookland-Cayce in the 3A state championship game. The Warriors are ranked fourth in preseason polls but they look like the favorites to emerge from the Upper State and contend for a second straight state title.
Maybe a few of the girls thought about last year’s dramatic championship when Bonda asked them to take in the view for a quiet moment. Maybe they thought about the coming months. Bonda called it a “mental cleansing.”
“We did have an amazing season last year and we just really have to remember that it doesn’t matter what we did last season, what matters is now,” Havermann said. “We’ve started back at the bottom so now we have to climb that mountain again.”
Then the phones came out and social media was informed of the trip. The girls took group photos and refueled for the trip back down. They’ll always have the Instagram posts of the incredible view from The Pinnacle. And maybe memories too.
“It was beautiful,” said Erwin, who will play college soccer at Newberry. “It’s great being up at the top.”