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The Evanston girls basketball team won Central Suburban League South division, regional and sectional championships last year en route to one of the best seasons in program history.
And it may have been just the start of something big for the Wildkits.
Three starters return from a 27-4 team that fell one win short of a trip to the Illinois High School Association state finals —bowing to Rolling Meadows in the supersectional — and an influx of talented freshmen could keep ETHS at or near the top of any poll you care to take in the next few years.
“Has the bar been raised? I’d much rather have that success (and the expectations that go with it) than just have a good season once in awhile,” said ETHS head coach Elliot Whitefield, who is entering his third season at the helm. “It took us awhile to even show up in the rankings last year, but now I’d like to think people are thinking ‘we’d better keep an eye on Evanston.’
“Maybe it’s living in fantasyland to think we can get back to the super. But I’d very much like to say hello to Rolling Meadows again. We didn’t compete very well against them that night, and that’s the first time that happened to us in 30 games.”
Returning regulars Dashae Shumate, a 5-foot-9 senior forward, and twin sisters Sierra and Seara Clayborn at guard are the headliners returning for another shot at a Downstate trip. Shumate recently committed to play at Howard University and is looking to play more consistent, especially at the offensive end.
“This year I think we have more offensive options,” Whitefield said. “Dashae’s shot has improved, and Sierra has improved her mid-range shot, too. She can hit the 3 or attack the basket. Seara has been a streaky shooter, but she’s really strong and (at 5-foot-8) she can post people up.
“I’m assuming teams will play a lot of zone against us again this year, but they can’t guard everybody.”
As usual, however, Evanston’s success will be determined by its man-to-man defense. Two of the main cogs for a team that played defense with a capital D last year — guard Erin Boothe and center Alecia Cooley — have graduated, and Whitefield is counting on a couple of freshmen to replace them as starters.
Leighah Wool and Krystal Forrester have big shoes to fill even though they aren’t just your typical freshmen.
“When Erin was on the ball for us last year, she caused a lot of disruptions for the other team’s guards and took them out of their comfort zone,” Whitefield said. “And with Alecia (6-2) in the back to clean up any mistakes we made, that was a big advantage for us.
“We may have some ups and downs with the freshmen in there this year. Nowadays with AAU ball, the two of them have played against really good competition for a couple of years now. Of course, the next AAU coach to teach defense will be the first to do it. So I have to be patient with them.”
Wool, 5-10 forward, and Forrester, a 6-foot post player, played all summer with the Wildkits so the transition shouldn’t be difficult. Wool is the daughter of former girls head coach Steve Wool — who will serve as an assistant in the girls program after working with the boys the last couple of years — and Whitefield falls just short of raving about her potential as a player.
“Leighah adds a person who can hit the 3 for us as well as post up,” the coach pointed out. “I’ve known her and watched her play since she was a little kid. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s our leading scorer in a number of games this year. She’s going to be a good one.
“Krystal is a battler. I know she’ll rebound for us and she works unbelievably hard. We won’t get the points we got in the post last year from Alecia, but I know she’ll play good defense as long as she keeps her intensity up.”
Wool and Forrester are part of a freshman class that is built for success. Besides the fact that both have earned starting slots on the varsity, five other freshmen have already been promoted to the sophomore level in the program, too.
Upperclassmen who figure to play big roles for the 2013-14 squad include senior forward Ashley Smith, senior Mae DeVuono and junior Maureen Kerr. Smith adds rebounding ferocity off the bench, and DeVuono is back after missing almost the entire season last year to knee surgery. “Mae was voted one of the captains, so that shows you what the other kids think of her,” Whitefield said. “She’s really worked hard on her shot, and on her ballhandling. She’s one of those kids who just gets it. Whatever is needed, that’s what she’ll do.”
The coach also expects to see a stronger and more confident Kerr in action. The 5-foot-7 forward is an all-conference performer in soccer and now has another spring and summer of playing against a high level of competition under her belt.
“She didn’t really play with us in the off-season (due to soccer conflicts), but she stepped in and was knocking down 3-pointers left and right when our tryouts started,” Whitefield said. “Over the past year she’s had to compete against stronger and aggressive kids, and this year I think she’s stronger and more aggressive herself. She’s more confident, and playing against good kids like that tends to toughen you up.
“Maureen is one of our best passers and I think she’s going to get some open looks on offense for us this year, too.”
Other Wildkits who could fill roles include Erika Carter and Adrianna Carter, junior twins who transferred in from Loyola Academy; senior Kyler Garron; junior Genora Garcia; junior Katie Christensen; and junior Meryl Davis.
Evanston opens defense of its championship at the Deerfield Thanksgiving Tournament on Thursday against Waukegan, at 6 p.m. They’ll take on Lincoln Park at 7:30 p.m. on Friday in the second round of the round-robin affair in a field that also includes Proviso East, Zion-Benton and host Deerfield.
Whitefield’s crew will face an early Central Suburban League South division challenge from rival New Trier when the two teams meet at Beardsley Gym on Saturday, Dec. 7 as part of a boys-girls doubleheader. That will be Evanston’s first home game of the season as school officials have decided to resume playing both games at the high school venues after a decade of playing at least once a year at Northwestern University.
“New Trier has everybody coming back. They’re very deep and they have some very talented kids,” the coach said. “On paper it looks like the two of us will battle it out in the conference — and maybe in the sectional, too.”