Second-year Evanston girls soccer coach Maurizio Grillo held a meeting during the first week of tryouts that involved only team co-captains Morgan Muno, Ryan Berkley, Olivia Bates and Lydia Hoopingarner.
Grillo’s message? Just because you’re a captain, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to fight for a starting position.
That should serve as a motivation for Evanston’s leaders, and also for an influx of young talent, as the Wildkits are hungry to improve on last year’s 10-7-3 record. The Kits only started one senior last year but still managed to rack up 10 victories despite the fact that Grillo came in and installed a possession-style of soccer at a program that featured a “kick and run” philosophy for decades.
Now the coach is planning further adjustments, starting with a three forward attack, beginning with Friday’s season opener at home against Lakes Community at 6:15 p.m. at Lazier Field.
Competition for playing time is one plus for a deep team that Grillo expects to challenge for Central Suburban League South division honors along with long-time power New Trier and defending champion Glenbrook South this spring.
“We’ve set the bar high this year,” Grillo said. “We changed our formation after playing a very safe (4-4-2) formation last year while we learned how to possess the ball better. Once we’ve learned that, now we can go with three forwards and try to get that extra goal per game you need to win.
“This year we want to contend for a regional and a conference championship. That’s been missing way too long at this school.”
Leading scorer Muno, University of Wisconsin recruit Jamie Donohue and midfielder Maureen Kerr are returning all-conference selections who have all been impact players ever since the first time they donned ETHS uniforms. Muno netted a team-best 16 goals last spring and will be joined on top on offense by fellow seniors Berkley and Jane Zunemon, who played mostly midfield last year.
Lina Valcheva, a junior, scored some big goals at the end of last year and is poised for a breakthrough season, according to her coach.
The midfield will feature playmaker Kerr, plus Alex Berkley and newcomer Maia Cella, a freshman.
“The midfield is really the key to our new formation,” said Grillo. “I think we’ll be really strong there. Cella is someone you’ll enjoy watching for the next four years. She’s an ODP (Olympic Development) player and she’s already on the radar of many schools (college recruiters). She’s super fast and I think she’ll be fun to watch. We also have a couple of freshmen (Kaylee Tafaishy and Nora Mertz) who may play a lot.”
Donohue will anchor a defensive unit that also includes Olivia Bates, a returning starter who’ll be shifted back from center midfield. A player to watch is sophomore Kate Kremin, who should lend a physical presence in front of three-year goalie starter Olivia Post.
“Jamie is the one with the speed to recover and cover up when we need her to,” said Grillo. “I think Kate will really give us a physical presence we need. She’ll take a prisoner before she’ll let anyone else get to a head ball before her, and we had some trouble with those head balls in there last year.”
Also challenging for playing time on defense are Lydia Hoopingarner and sophomore K’tyah Du Point. Leila Warner will back up Post in goal and both players should benefit from the addition of assistant coach Jessica Eberle, who joins the program after playing goalie at Elmhurst University.
Grillo has toughened the schedule, too. The Wildkits will play in the Pepsi Showdown, the toughest in-season tournament in the state of Illinois, and over spring break Evanston will journey to Alabama to play the two schools (Spain and Oak Mountain) that have won the last two state titles in Alabama’s biggest class.
“We have a saying in Italy, that if you want to call yourself one of the big boys, you have to play with the big boys,” the coach noted. “There are many great teams in that Pepsi tournament, and we’re fortunate that they saved us a spot.
“The Alabama trip was based on my concern coming out of spring break last year, when we didn’t play for 10 days. That cost us with our intensity and with our conditioning. It was really noticeable with our conditioning, so this will force everyone to keep running and keep playing.”