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Lee County girls lose first-round heartbreaker

Lee County's Danielle Brendel

Lee County's Danielle Brendel

LEESBURG — No one cried Tuesday.

Nope, not a tear.

That’s the way Lee County’s girls left the field after losing to Northgate, 5-2, in the Class AAAAA girls soccer state playoffs.

After all, they had cried a river just to get here.

Lee’s emotional and unforgettable season was over, a season the kids dedicated to teammate Madison Stokes, who died in an auto accident at the beginning of the school year — a season full of anguish and heartache.

“It was emotional,’’ Lee County coach Dave Baltenberger said. “We had to overcome so much. I could make a list. How many times do you have to overcome the loss of a player? It was emotional, but the kids played great right until the end. It would have been great to have won and beaten (Northgate). It would have been a fairy tale ending. But it didn’t happen. We still had a great season.’’

Northgate, a powerhouse from the Atlanta suburbs, is ranked No. 6 in the state and comes from Region 4-AAAAA, which has not only produced the last four state champions but has sent three or four teams to the Final Four for the past four seasons.

The Lady Vikings, who were third in the region behind the top two ranked teams in Georgia, got four goals from freshman sensation Lily Barron and one from Micayla Crenshaw, who set up Barron with two beautiful assists to give Northgate a 2-0 lead early.

But Lee withstood all that and more and had a day to remember.

“We never gave up and kept hustling until the end,’’ said freshman Gracen Booker, who scored both goals for the Lady Trojans. “I think we played really well against them. We came back in the second half.’’

Booker’s first goal cut the lead to 3-1 and was set up by a brilliant corner kick from Alexis Roland and a wicked assist from Josie Nix, who found Booker to the right side about 15 yards out. It was a freshman connection between Nix and Booker.

Booker’s second goal came on a quick-hit assist from Elsie Mullins, who beat the traffic and found Booker just in front of the goal on the right.

Booker knew just what to do with Mullins’ heads-up feed. She buried it in the left corner.

Lee had its moments all afternoon.

"That's a very talented team. They have a lot of ability,'' Northgate coach Bryan Hicks said. "They are just not used to playing (teams at this level). We play in a very tough region, and we have to fight just to get out of our region.''

Baltenberger agreed.

"We just don't see that kind of speed,'' he said. "It took us a while to adjust to it. I want to go to Atlanta and play more teams from there (during the regular season). They are the No. 6 team in the state and they deserve it. That's really a good team.''

Still, Lee's kids had their share of the game. Roland, Mullins and Booker all had big games and Sarah Sheffield and Nix had some highlight tape plays on defense.

Northgate didn't just mark Lee's biggest threat, Carsen Taylor, the Lady Vikings smothered her, and yet Taylor made plays and was dangerous throughout the game.

Then there was Danielle Brendel.

Amazing, spectacular — those were some of the words teammates used to describe Brendel's incredible performance. She was amazing and more for most of the afternoon and made 23 saves in goal, including 15 in the first half, diving, leaping and batting away one threat after another.

"She was spectacular,'' Booker said.

No one argued.

"I think I probably had that many saves (23) all year before having 23 in one game. I don't know how many saves I had,'' said Brendel, who had no idea how many saves she had on Tuesday. "I didn't know. I didn't count them. It was crazy. You had to be on your toes every minute. I knew it would be crazy, but I didn't know it would be like that.

"We're just not used to that speed,'' she said. "And (on defense) they smothered everybody. It was like every time you looked up they had two people on us when we had the ball. But we fought back and played hard. We stepped up in the second half.''

That was the feeling at the end.

"We have nothing to hang our heads about,'' Sheffield said. "We knew coming into this game they were going to be very tough, and we would have to play our best. We played well. We played a good game, but they have a lot of speed and they play in a tough region. I know. I play with a travel team in Atlanta and play against some of those girls. In Atlanta it's a whole different level of soccer.''

Lee County, arguably the best program in Southwest Georgia, loses seven seniors and five have earned scholarships. Sheffield signed with Troy State and Taylor is going to Jacksonville State in Alabama. Brendel signed with Columbus State, and Roland has committed to Middle Georgia and is expected to sign soon. Nicole Polk, one of the team's best players who was lost for the season when she suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the season, signed with Valdosta State.

Baltenberger has called this the greatest class in Lee County history, and the five signings are a first. It was unfortunate that Lee had such a miserable draw and played Northgate in the first round. Had the Lady Trojans been on the other side of the bracket they might have reached the Elite 8 or better.

"It was unlucky to get this draw,'' Baltenberger said. "We played really well. Danielle had a really good game. I've had her for three years, and she has always been where she needs to be. We played well. We just couldn't match their speed.

"A fairy tale ending would have been amazing. But we can't hang our heads. We're walking off the field with our heads up high.''