How do you explain a belief?
For Boone, North Carolina, a town nestled into the Appalachian Mountain Range and part of the historic High Country, it’s a year-round plight. Fighting to show the world that the things they believe in truly do exist. That they can exist in our world alongside us.
Some of these topics include the legendary Bigfoot and the prospect that down-home moonshine is the best drink you can have. Others are even more unbelievable.
Enter Appalachian FC, in only its third season of competitive play. A team born out of the pandemic with pieces from the college and international level. A team with a Sasquatch logo that’s loved by its community for reasons that go beyond the success it’s had on the field.
“All sports teams at every level, from the major leagues to the amateur level, have a unique opportunity to give back to their communities,” said co-founder and investor Michael Hitchcock. “Really have a positive impact on so many different levels.”
The National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) team is preparing for a first-ever Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match later on this month. They’ll host North Carolina amateur institution Fusion U-23 on March 22.
It’s a game that didn’t seem possible three years ago.
In May 2020, with the country two months deep in the COVID-19 pandemic, Appalachian State University announced it was cutting three sports teams effective immediately. Included on that list were the Mountaineers men’s soccer team.
This left four-year head coach Jason O’Keefe with a dilemma. After years of struggle the program had been doing better. Sure, its heyday in the 1970s had long passed, but the Mountaineers had just achieved their best record in almost two decades. Attendance for games was up, including multiple matches that drew over 1,000 fans. He had players who still wanted to play and a community that was, seemingly, starting to fall for soccer.
Enter a man with (possibly) more lower-league teams to his name than anyone else. Michael Hitchcock, a soccer executive with previous experience at Major League Soccer teams like FC Dallas and LA Galaxy, has spent the last decade working at the amateur level. A founder and investor in (at that point) three NPSL teams, Hitchcock is a firm believer in the sport having a positive effect on the community it’s in.
In November of that year, Appalachian Football Club became a reality. The newest member of the nationwide NPSL was backed by O’Keefe, Hitchcock and a group consisting of Boone business, soccer and community leaders.
Looking toward the community, and remembering an idea he’d had for some time, there was only one iconic and elusive cryptid who could represent the new club, according to Hitchcock.
“That part of the country is Bigfoot country,” he said of the decision to build the club’s identity around the Sasquatch. “It’s part of the culture, it’s part of the community. It’s a part of the folklore. We’ve been able to build a really cool brand around that that sells hundreds of thousands of dollars in online merchandise in all 50 states.
“He’s a part of our brand and it’s the best $180 dollars I’ve ever spent on Amazon [the Sasquatch costume] in the history of my sports management career,” he added.
The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.
Dale Parker should not fit into the High Country. And yet the English expat is fully immersed in the culture of the mountains. The former Ocean City Nor’easter player had never been a head coach of a men’s team, with his experience ranging from youth to assistant at multiple colleges.
“They took a little bit of a risk, a little bit of a gamble, and the rest is sort of history,” Parker joked.
Ask the people around Parker and they’ll tell a different story. Max Landau, a fellow Englishman originally from North Yorkshire, first met Parker at Lander University in South Carolina. The player and assistant coach bonded well together.
“I believe he is one of the best coaches or managers that I’ve ever had since being in America,” said Landau, a defender and Lander alumnus now with Appalachian FC. “He’s down to earth, he’s got an incredible knowledge of the game; he understands the player’s feelings and thoughts. He’s the real deal.”
That might be why the last few years have been so hectic for Parker. The man who had never led a team above the youth level prior to 2021 landed with Division II Lincoln Memorial University of Tennessee following his debut NPSL season. And after his second season with App FC, the coach was offered the chance to return to DII Lander as a head coach this February.
Four roles in three years across three states has Parker slightly hoping he has a “mediocre” 2023, just so he can take a breath.
Parker and his staff had a productive but disappointing first season with App in 2021. With only a few months to build a team before the season started, his group was a mix of former State talent and prospective players. They reached as far as the conference playoffs.
His sophomore year, with a well-defined platform in place, was different.
“We started to build a team that could win games and win championships,” Parker explained “We did keep a nice little core… But what we were able to do was build a profile of the player who fit the type of team we wanted to have. Obviously we’re uniquely located in the mountains, the altitude is a little cooler. So we can build a style and build a unique club.
That first playoff silverware, plus a spot in the NPSL East Region Final, earned Parker the 2022 NPSL Coach of the Season Award.
According to Landau, whose performance also earned him a spot on the NPSL Southeast Conference team of the year, the team had grown exponentially. A group of college-age players, with backgrounds from North Carolina to Europe, had come together under Parker to form a firm fist of a unit.
“The overall team togetherness was what served us well,” the defender said. “We had a core, and a spine of a team that all just wanted to dig in and grind. Not to be dramatic but they all wanted to die for eachother at the end of the day.”
The position of Appalachian FC in the American Soccer pyramid is not representative of the type of support the team has.
Prior to kickoff for any home game, a skeptic can become a true-believer simply by stumbling into the Booneshine Brewing Company. It’s where the loyal (and loud) App faithful, members of the Squatch Guard Supporter’s Group, ready themselves for game-time. The march to nearby Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex cuts through the forest and down a hill, with the drums growing louder as they approach.
“I have friends who I’ve taken to games who are major sports fans, who’ve seen Real Madrid play,” Hitchcock said. “While it’s different and nowhere close to the same scale as that, it has its own special experience. They all say the same thing: ‘That’s one of the most fun sporting events I’ve ever been to.’”
Boone is, at its heart, a college town. One with a highly successful NCAA Division I athletics program. It’s a town that’s used to success and wants to support winners. It’s why Appalachian FC games regularly feature crowds that tip into the thousands. And that’s only counting the paying customers, while plenty of fans choose to watch atop the nearby hills for a different view.
“The Squatch Guard, they put on a show before the game and they give us everything in the stands,” Parker boasted of the team behind the team. “We feel the way we play should match all of that. So we want to have a winning culture, we want to be exciting to watch, we want to pay back all the supporters and all the people in the community who’ve supported us.”
“They [the fans] spend their hard-earned money on coming out, buying season tickets, buying shirts, having a good time,” Landau added. “Giving us a platform and something to play for.”
North Carolina is no stranger to sports upsets. The Carolina Railhawks (now North Carolina FC) somehow beat MLS powers LA Galaxy in the 2012 Open Cup Third Round.
Then they did it again in 2013. And again in 2014, despite being outshot 31 to 6 at home.
More recently NC Fusion U-23, App’s 2023 opponent in the First Round, knocked off USL League One pros Charlotte Independence in last year’s tournament.
The other kind of football is just as storied in the High Country. And the App State Mountaineers famously upset the Michigan Wolverines in 2007. The Big Ten powerhouse was ranked fifth in the nation at the time while App didn’t even play in the same NCAA subdivision.
Last September the football team did it again when it knocked off #6 Texas A&M in-front of nearly 100,000 fans in College Station.
With the Open Cup format this year, App FC would need to win at least two games to potentially play a team from Major League Soccer (American soccer’s top pro tier). It’s a game that, according to Hitchcock, could be played in the larger App State stadium if a random draw went their way.
Every member of the team’s staff and community knows the drill: they need to focus on the task at hand. The First Round against NC Fusion, even at home, is going to be tough.
“It’s just a massive carrot that’s being dangled in front of us,” said Parker. “There should really be no motivational speech because the motivation is you’re getting an opportunity to bring an MLS team, at some point, to your home town. To the community that’s been coming out to your games for two years now. If that doesn’t get you excited you shouldn’t be playing.”
Could a Sasquatch wear the crown of Charlotte FC? Steal the railroad spike from 2019 Open Cup champs Atlanta United FC? Time will tell. But there’s something special alive and high in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s something that by all accounts shouldn’t exist. Something that refuses to die.
Landau says it best.
“Drive up the mountain and come experience it for yourself.”
Michael Battista is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to TheCup.us, Once A Metro, & New York Sports Nation. Follow him at @MichaelBattista on Twitter.
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