Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

LEESBURG -- What's been the key to Lee County girls soccer's success this year?

Well, a lot of things actually.

The top-seeded Lady Trojans will rely on all of them when the GHSA Region 1-AAAA playoffs begin today at home. Lee faces No. 4 seed Jones County at 5:30 p.m., needing a win to secure a spot in the state playoffs.

Key ingredient No. 1: Reigning Herald Player of the Year Rachel Hatch.

The senior striker, who scored 30 goals a year ago and has signed with Darton College, will no doubt get her shots in during the Lady Trojans' run for a region title, which fell short last year in a 1-0 loss to Thomas County Central in the championship game.

"Lots of times people will mark (Hatch) so that opens up the other side of the field," Lady Trojans coach Dave Baltenberger said. "She can actually drag people away just by who she is. Most teams do know her, especially if she scores."

With so much attention paid to Hatch, Lee's ultimate fate will rest in the ability of others to score. Enter fellow senior striker Haley Cimino, who has taken advantage of opposing teams' focus on Hatch. The left-footed Cimino and right-footed Hatch have developed a solid 1-2 punch, leading to Lee County's 13-1-1 and unbeaten region record.

The Lady Trojans' second key ingredient: Defense.

In 15 games this year, opponents have scored just 16 goals on Lee County. Only five goals were scored on goalkeeper Ashley Law in March, four of those coming in a 5-4 win (penalty kicks) over Region 1-AAAA No. 2 seed TCC.

"Our defense has just been solid," Baltenberger said.

Key ingredient No. 3: Team chemistry.

The Lady Trojans' mix of every classification and long-time familiarity with each other have created a bond on the field. With five seniors, a couple of juniors, a slew of sophomores and four freshmen who start regularly, Lee has gotten contributions from every grade level.

"It's a good mix together," freshman Sarah Sheffield said.

"A lot of these kids know each other because they've played together, not just here, but in travel soccer," added Balterberger.

One of those keys may get Lee County into the state playoffs. A combination of two might push them into the second round. But all three working together could get the Lady Trojans past round two, which no Lee County soccer team has ever accomplished.

Freshman Nicole Polk summed it up perfectly when asked what's led the team to a No. 1 seed heading into the region playoffs.

"Really everything," she said.

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LEE BOYS KEEP BUILDING:

The Trojans hope to add to an already improved regular season. After a loss in the first game of the region playoffs a year ago, the Trojans have already improved on their standing for this year's tournament.

A one-and-out as the No. 4 seed a year ago has served as the catalyst for Lee's current No. 2. The Trojans open region tournament play at home, following the girls game, at 7:30 p.m. against No. 3 seed Harris County.

Last year's large group of young sophomores has turned into a more experienced handful of juniors who have taken on a larger leadership role.

"This year (the juniors) really had to step up and be the leaders on the field," Trojans head coach Billy Cash said.

Junior mid-fielder Patrick Soto, the team's leading scorer, is a prime example. There are many others, however, on both offense and defense after finishing the regular season, 5-9 overall and 3-3 in the region.

"We're really starting to hit that stride right now," said Cash, whose team had a strong finish to the regular season. "We're starting to finally click as a team."

Like the girls, a win for the boys today would guarantee a state playoff appearance. It would also match the boys against the winner of the game between Westside, Macon and Hardaway in Thursday's region crossover bracket. The girls, meanwhile, would play the winner of the game between Bainbridge and Upson-Lee.