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Lee County girls soccer wins Region 1-AAAA tourney opener, boys fall

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LEESBURG -- Listen to Nicole Polk, and listen closely.

"Records don't mean a thing,'' said Polk just after Lee County's girls soccer team had beaten Northside, Warner Robins, 3-0, Tuesday afternoon in the quarterfinal round of the Region 1-AAAA Tournament.

She means it.

And so does Lee County.

Nobody seems to care about the Lady Trojans' 9-7 record because no one is looking back on the season. They're looking eye-to-eye with the postseason.

That's what Tuesday's win was all about. It not only sends Lee County into Thursday's semifinals, but guarantees the Lady Trojans a berth in the state tournament, and no one -- not even the kids or the coach -- know how good Lee might be when the state tournament starts.

The reason?

"We're getting better and better,'' said Morgan Barbaro, one of only two seniors who start for Lee. "We've gotten a lot better during the season."

Barbaro then added: "We lost a lot of people from last year's team, and it's taken a while to find our niche.''

Their "niche" was looking pretty good Tuesday. The Lee County girls simply outhustled Northside all afternoon, and when Northside did create an opportunity, either Barbaro or Sarah Sheffield was there to take it away. Those two defenders, along with Polk, who does a little of everything, did not allow Northside a shot on goal all day.

Barbaro and Polk were tough as nails, and Sheffield was simply the quickest girl on the turf.

"She was killing us back there,'' Northside coach Ryan Burkhart said of Sheffield. "She was solid. She didn't make any mistakes.''

Neither did Lee, which dominated the game.

"Our defense played great,'' Lee County coach Dave Baltenberger said. "We're the best defense in the region.''

Northside had lost just once all season and came to Leesburg with a 9-1-3 record, but -- as Polk says: "Records don't mean a thing.''

"They definitely beat us to a lot of balls,'' Burkhart said. "We had some (moments) but they were definitely better than us the last 20 minutes. They just put it to us.''

Especially Carson Taylor, who just missed a beautiful assist to Brittney Rackley with about five minutes left in the game when Taylor ripped down the right side and fired a pass over the middle to Rackley, who barely missed stuffing the goal.

Taylor came right back with a breakaway three minutes later and sliced in from the right side, punching in a 2-0 lead with 2:18 left. But she wasn't finished. Taylor got free on another breakaway in the final seconds and made a move up the middle, and then sent a shot high into the right corner to make the final 3-0.

"That second goal kind of boosted our confidence,'' Taylor said. "We got fired up.''

Taylor's two goals put the game away, but Elsie Mullins' goal just before halftime is one for Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. Mullins scored with her back to the goal, flipping the ball in backward.

"No I've never done that before,'' said Mullins, a freshman who has been playing soccer since she was 4. "And I've never seen it before.''

Polk gets an assist, because it was Polk, who plays both offense and defense for Lee County, who sent the corner kick into the left side of the net. Northside's goalkeeper went diving to stop the shot, and the ball trickled off into traffic. With the goalkeeper on the ground, Mullins didn't waste time turning around. She just sent a shot backward into the net.

"We'll take it,'' Baltenberger said. "I've never seen it either, but we'll take it. That goal was big just before halftime.''

Polk jumped when Mullins scored.

"Oh yeah,'' Polk said. "She was there!''

That's life at Lee these days, where Polk is about as versatile as anyone and Mullins can score with her back to the net. Taylor and Polk have led Lee in scoring all season. Sheffield and Barbaro, who is just so versatile that she moved from center midfielder to defense to help the team, have carried the stoppers. And then there's Polk, who does a little bit of everything.

Baltenberger has had to tweak and mix and match all season to find the formula at Lee. His team went to the Elite 8 last spring ---the deepest Lee had ever gone in the state tournament -- but he lost five starters, including Herald Player of the year, Rachel Hatch.

Lee County has played a tough schedule, but the kids said that has helped them get ready for the region and beyond.

"We're playing more aggressive,'' Taylor said.

Sheffield believes it's that and more.

"We're talking a lot more and communicating,'' she said. "We lost a lot of players from last year, but we have been playing better and better.''

The changes not only have worked, they have helped the team's confidence, and the players' confidence in each other.

"We lost five starters, and had to build it back up,'' Baltenberger said. "We have had to do some things, but we feel like we are peaking right now. Even though we have seven losses, we feel ready to play (in the postseason). We're playing the best we've played all year.''

Lee will find out its semifinal opponent today when the rest of the scores from Tuesday's first round are reported.

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LEE BOYS FALL:

The Lee County's boys team saw its season end Tuesday in the region quarterfinals as Warner Robins beat Lee, 2-0. The Trojans end the season at 3-10.