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ILHS girls’ state victory cry was heard statewide

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Sports Editor Robert Howey covers Indian Land sports.

The post-match words of Brookland-Cayce High School girls soccer coach Emily Heise didn’t fall on deaf ears.

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A marathon match to decide the Class AAA girls state soccer champion – which went 110 minutes and the decisive penalty kicks – was a classic “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” finish.

Heise, in her final match guiding her prep alma mater Lady Bearcats, was hoping for a storybook finish since she’s moving to Gray Collegiate to lead the Lady War Eagles next spring.

But if you’re an Indian Land High School Lady Warriors’ soccer fan, you know the rest of the story.

The ILHS girls, in dramatic fashion, prevailed 2-1 (5-3) in penalty kicks over B-C to cap an emotional, physical match for the Lancaster County Class AAA school’s first state soccer championship.

Lady Warriors junior midfielder Emily Gerdes drilled in the fifth and final goal to ignite a raucous ILHS midfield celebration, with hugs, cheers, smiles and even a few tears of joy.

“You just won a state championship,” an excited ILHS coach Mark Bonda yelled to his celebrating team as they piled on each other on the Hawkins Stadium artificial turf.

Gerdes shared the blue and gold hero honors with ILHS keeper Emma Thompson, who stretched out to make the clutch stop on B-C’s third kick to give the Lady Warriors the edge.

As the jubilant Lady Warriors celebrated in the background, Heise noted that soccer can be cruel at times.

The tight match, in pursuit of the state’s top honor, was decided on penalty kicks. At that point, it’s mano-a-mano, a player attempting the goal from 12 yards out and the opposing keeper, alone in the net, seeking to stop the impending shot.

B-C played the title match without its all-state keeper Alyssa Stevens, who tore her ACL in the Cats’ 2-1 Lower State win over state soccer power Bishop England High School.

B-C’s freshman Charlotte Teeter started in goal and was stellar in regulation and overtimes. But Heise put senior Shannon Favor in for the penalty kicks session. Heise said she felt the stage might be too big for the freshman, noting Favor is the B-C keeper in PK practice situations.

“The game’s cruel at times,” she said. “It’s a hard way to decide a match.”

I felt her emotional pain, but I know the other side of the coin, and you can say it’s an Indian Land High head.

“If this team doesn’t know life isn’t fair at times, just watch that game,” Heise said. “Nobody deserved a state championship more than these girls or this program.”

Heise has her opinion, but I beg to differ.

The Indian Land High girls’ state crown Saturday was the first in the 24-year history of the Warriors’ soccer program.

The ILHS girls had never been in the state title match and had only played once for the Upper State crown early in Bonda’s 10-year career as head coach.

At the same time, the ILHS boys’ team had been in the state championship match five straight years. The Warriors could boast of five Upstate crowns, but no gold in five state title match appearances.

Nearly a year ago to the day, the ILHS boys dropped a 4-1 loss to Bishop England on the same field at Irmo. The match was a scoreless draw at the break, but the talented Bishops, who annually compete with the state’s best, drawing from a vast talent pool, rallied for the 2016 state boys crown.

Indian Land had been there before, falling to elite Charleston-area private schools, B-E and Academic Magnet.

The Lady Warriors’ lone shot to possibly play for a state title was denied by Greenville area Class A-AA girls soccer power Christ Church a few years back.

The Warriors girls and boys teams have experienced their share of heartache in their quest for state gold, a run of frustration and futility.

For the 2017 season, Bonda, near the end of regular-season play, could sense more of the same. The team was having its share of success, but the intensity was lacking.

It all came full circle in a 3-1 region loss to Camden High School.

In their next practice, Bonda said the team didn’t practice. They just talked it out and, more importantly, refocused to produce a 5-0 postseason run, with four shutouts, 33 goals scored and only one allowed, and, of course, the coveted state crown.

In the state title match, the Lady Warriors were on new ground, but not facing a new foe. Earlier in the season, B-C blanked ILHS, 3-0. The rematch was all about the Lady Warriors’ heart and desire, not to mention their preparation and execution.

Bonda left no stone unturned – he had his team practice on the articifical turf at a Fort Mill school. As any good coach does, he broke down film and reviewed any type situation the Lady Warriors might face in the state title match, including penalty kicks.

BC broke on top, 1-0, but IL, in a two-minute span, answered with Kelsey Long’s breakaway goal.

But despite B-C outshooting ILHS, 21-7, the Lady Warriors were determined to win. And as the match wore on, it was all about who wanted it most.

“Three or four starters went out with injuries, and our bench responded,” Bonda said of the championship match. “We had a great week of practice, and I felt good about our chances.”

As it turned out, the Lady Warriors, at the end, felt really good, too.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t our day,” Heise said. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out for the team, no matter how much heart and effort you put into it.”

Indian Land knows – they’ve been there.

Now, ILHS knows that special championship feeling. Their proud victory cry can be heard across the state.