By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Effingham County’s Bailee Hildebrandt entered the 2020 soccer season with similar goals of other top junior athletes around the country.
A good year would put the center midfielder on the radar of college recruiters.
But the spring season went downhill faster than Lindsey Vonn. In Hildebrandt’s sixth game, she collided head-on with an opponent trying to head a corner kick into the Rebels’ goal.
She suffered a black eye, then learned she had an ankle injury.
Two games later, concerns about the spread of COVID-19 ended the season. Hildebrandt was a ball girl — fetching balls that went out of bounds — during her final action of the spring.
“It was weird because we didn’t know it was going to be our last game and then (the season) was over,” she said. “You didn’t get a heads up.”
But her chance to display her wares didn’t fade away. During the fall, while playing with her club team, Savannah United 02 Premier, Hildebrandt and her teammate Emma Beddow (of St. Vincent’s Academy in Savannah) caught the eye of a Columbus State University assistant soccer coach.
“Everything just fell into place. We went for a visit the next week because we were playing in Columbus,” Hildebrandt said.
On Dec. 2, she held her signing party at ECHS to celebrate becoming part of the Cougar program. Hildebrandt said Beddow would follow today (Dec. 9).
“Bailee’s really been a do-it-all for us,” Rebels girls soccer coach Wade Wright said. “She’s the leader of the team and she’s a student of the game. She knows what’s happening not only on the ball, but off the ball too.”
After three seasons, Hildebrandt has been among the best prep soccer players in the area. In 39 career games, she has 35 goals and 23 assists.
In just her second varsity soccer game, she tallied four goals and three assists against New Hampstead.
About a week later, after watching goalie Sydney Martinez make an acrobatic save to keep the Rebels close, Hildebrandt took care of the offensive end by scoring twice in the final 10 minutes to beat rival South Effingham 2-1.
“I remember Sydney and I hugging after (the game-winning goal on a penalty kick). It was probably my most memorable game,” Hildebrandt said.
She scored 19 goals and added 13 assists during her freshman season and had a shootout goal in ECHS’s memorable victory (0-0, 4-2 in penalty kicks) over Houston County.
Hildebrandt was named to the All-Region 2-6A girls soccer team.
The last two seasons, Hildebrandt, a captain both years, has been an anchor on a rebuilding team. She scored eight goals with eight assists in 2019 and had eight goals and two assists in the six games she played last spring.
“As a center midfielder, I like to control the field because if (the ball) gets past you then it’s up to the defense,” she said. “You want to put pressure on the other team. It’s my job to get it to the offense.”
Hildebrandt now takes her game to the next level. Columbus State, which plays in the Peach Belt Conference, has been among the nation’s elite Division II teams. Two seasons ago, the Cougars finished third in the nation in scoring (3.62 goals a game) and posted an 18-1-2 record while advancing to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships.
Academically, Hildebrandt said she’ll work toward a degree in exercise science.
In a few months, she’ll try again to carry out a productive season for ECHS in the spring.
“I think we all want to have a special season this year,” she said.