WINDHAM — Seventeen girls on the Windham High varsity soccer team will gather at the high school on the morning of Labor Day, not knowing where they are headed or what will be in store.

They have been told what to wear, and that it might be a good idea to bring a bathing suit, but no guarantees that they’ll end up needing it. Oh, and hand over those cell phones to the assistant coach for safekeeping. Won’t be needing those.

These days, nearly every high school athletic team worth its salt attempts some sort of camaraderie-building exercise away from the playing field, be it a group picnic or a paint-ball outing or an afternoon at someone’s uncle’s camp. Windham soccer coach Deb LeBel and her assistant coaches, Jen Sullivan and Jim Stewart, take things to an entirely different level.

Senior midfielder Allie Kirby remembers making varsity as a freshman and taking part in a day-long scavenger hunt similar to television’s “The Amazing Race.” Bustling around town in teams of four or five with a coach escort, players were given tasks as varied as kicking a field goal, taping an ankle, memorizing and delivering a soliloquy from “Friday Night Lights” and shearing a sheep.

“That was crazy,” Kirby said of handling livestock at a local farm (owned by the family of a former Windham soccer player, Darcey Webster). “That was probably the best part of it.”

Last year’s squad kayaked in Sebago Lake and circumnavigated Frye Island. Coaches challenged the girls to raft their kayaks and, one by one, walk across the bows of the boats.

“People were definitely pretty timid at first,” said senior stopper Belle Skvorak. “But then you see how, as everybody works together and holds on, you’re fine, because everybody is supporting you.”

The faith in team-bonding exercises is so strong at Windham that LeBel sets aside two full days where soccer takes a back seat. The first is Monday – one game into the regular season – and the second is six weeks later, just before the playoffs.

She started the tradition during her four-year stint at Falmouth High and has continued it at Windham, where she is beginning her eighth season. Her teams won three Class B state titles at Falmouth and two in Class A at Windham (2013 and 2014), so maybe developing teamwork and self-confidence and leadership off the field translates to success on the pitch.

“When I was at Falmouth, we did more white-water rafting, we did some beach days,” LeBel said. “Since we’ve come to Windham, we’ve been more creative.”

Stewart, a civil engineer whose two daughters played at Windham, has been with the program since 2013. He has fond memories of a trip to Connecticut for a summer tournament back when he played at Windham. Players chopped firewood and raffled off a cord to help pay for the adventure.

He figures many of the current athletes may not recall specific games or scores, but they’ll all remember the time they worked together to navigate the Maine National Guard ropes course and rappelling tower in Gilead.

“Picture this,” Stewart said and grew increasingly animated. “We drive up to this house – and we have a lot of support, it’s awesome – in an athlete goes. They don’t know what they’re doing. And inside is someone who’s saying, ‘You have to memorize this.’ And they have to then come out and recite the speech to everybody before we can go to the next task.”

In such a situation, the girl who delivers under pressure, Stewart points out, is unlikely to shrink from the challenge of a game-deciding penalty kick.

“What’s amazing to us as coaches is how different they are off the field,” he said. “The best athlete or the fastest kid or the strongest defender may not be the best problem-solver. So we’re hoping that these things translate into life skills. And the leaders are not always the best soccer players.”

Not only do the activities bring the team closer, but they also force social interaction between girls who might otherwise go their separate ways at a school of just over a thousand students. Kirby remembers feeling intimidated as a freshman in her first varsity preseason camp and how the kindness of older girls – even with something as simple as offering a ride home from practice – made her feel welcome.

“When you’re doing these different things, it can be a little stressful,” senior defender Rachel Frost said of the competitive tasks asked of them. “When you’re helping each other through it, it can develop the friendships that you didn’t even know were going to happen. If we didn’t do the team bonding, you’d just show up, do your soccer practice and then go home. You wouldn’t really have that much time to think about anything other than soccer with these people.”

As for the secretive and ever-changing nature of the adventures, the athletes said that simply makes the anticipation even greater.

“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Frost said, “until you’re already there.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

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