LEESBURG -- Many of the players on the Lee County girls soccer team will likely be sitting on the bus at school today with one thought on their minds as they get set to travel to Augusta for the Lady Trojans' Sweet 16 showdown with Evans High School.
"Wait ... where's Rachel Hatch?"
Don't worry, she's coming.
Hatch, the reigning Herald Player of the Year for girls soccer who missed last week's state opener because she was sick, was cleared Tuesday by doctors to play in today's second-round GHSA playoff game, according to head coach Dave Baltenberger.
And to illustrate just how important a piece of the puzzle Hatch -- the team's leading goal scorer -- is to the Lady Trojans, her teammates will be sitting patiently on the bus waiting for her to finish her AP calculus exam at noon so they can leave.
"School comes first," Baltenberger said. "But you better believe the second she's done, we're outta there."
With a 4-to-5 hour drive to Augusta ahead of Lee -- and desire to show up with enough time for a pregame practice -- Baltenberger knows the Region 1, No. 2-seeded Lady Trojans (16-2-1) will be cutting it close. But if it means waiting on Lee's star player, who has scored 30 of the team's 102 goals this season, the scene will likely look like something out of a Marvel comic book: Hatch running down the hallway to her waiting teammates calling out her name from the bus as she "Super-womans" from her everyday school outfit into her soccer uniform -- and then dives through an open bus window as it pulls away like a getaway car.
OK, maybe that's a little dramatic.
But Hatch's teammates will need to play like Superwomen vs. Evans, considering Hatch didn't return to practice until Tuesday -- her first action in more than a week -- and won't start today.
"She's cleared to play, but she's not 100 percent," Baltenberger said. "We'll get her back, yes -- but we're not going to get all of her."
So then the question that remains for Baltenberger -- without giving too much of his strategy for today's game against Region 3, No. 1 seed Evans -- is simple: With Hatch limited, what's the game plan?
"Nothing out of the ordinary, that we wouldn't normally do when she's tired and needs to come out of the game (for a rest)," the coach said. "We have a normal sub we send in for her who also sometimes starts at midfield -- freshman Carsen Taylor -- so now Carsen will just get more playing time."
And that's certainly not a bad thing.
Taylor, according to Baltenberger, has netted an impressive 15 goals this season "and is second or third on the team," in scoring.
Baltenberger said he will put Hatch in the game until he sees her slowing down.
"We'll let her play whatever she can handle. Probably in short bursts, then get her out of there," he said. "My guess is (because she's coming off being sick and not practicing) she's going to get tired quick -- or at least quicker than usual."
Baltenberger, who spoke to The Herald via cell phone while at practice Tuesday, said he could tell Hatch "wasn't 100 percent" as he watched her go through drills.
But in conversations with his senior star, who is headed to Darton next season after signing with the local Albany junior college last month, he said she's naturally bummed about not being able to play to her full potential in the biggest game of the year.
"I think she's taking it pretty well," Baltenberger said. "She's doing the best she can."
Baltenberger, whose team has only traveled as far away as Jekyll Island this year for a game, said he doesn't know much about Evans or what its strengths and weaknesses are, adding he e-mailed "a couple of coaches (for a scouting report) but never heard anything" in response.
"They're a No. 1 seed, so I know they're good -- but that's about all I know," Baltenberger said. "I guess we'll find out when we get there."
The winner of the Evans-Lee game will face off Saturday in the GHSA Class AAAA Elite Eight against the victor of one of today's other Sweet 16 showdowns between Region 7, No. 1 South Paulding and Region 5, No. 2 Starr's Mill.