The closer you get to the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state soccer finals, the better it is to have a go-to player like Oli Jacques on your side.
Jacques delivered a pair of goals — including the game-winning score with 5 minutes, 44 seconds remaining in the first overtime period — and sent Evanston into the championship game of the Class 3A Niles North Sectional tournament with a 2-1 semifinal triumph over Leyden.
The Wildkits, who haven’t won a sectional crown since 2003, will face the New Trier-Maine South winner on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Niles North. Winner of that contest advances to the Barrington Supersectional next Tuesday.
On a night when Evanston’s offense sputtered in windy conditions at Chuck Pos Stadium in Skokie, Jacques rose to the occasion as top-seeded Evanston improved to 16-2-4 on the season. The Kits were whistled for 10 offsides violation by one count and had difficulty penetrating the pesky flat back defense employed by Leyden (12-6-4).
“That was way too close for comfort,” admitted ETHS head coach Franz Calixte after his squad reached the sectional finals for the second straight year. “I think it was just nerves, and we had a couple of balls that just didn’t bounce our way. You have to capitalize on your opportunities when you get them, and we missed a few.
“Leyden gambled on defense with that flat back and some of those offsides were just by an inch or two against us. If the calls go our way, then it’s a race to the goal and we have a lot more opportunities.”
Leyden’s first shot on goal produced the only score of the game for the Eagles. It began with a corner kick in the 14th minute, and when the ETHS defense couldn’t clear the ball, Leyden’s Miguel Mireles beat Evanston keeper Adam Masters with a low shot in the right corner.
The Wildkits answered almost immediately. Two and a half minutes later, Erick Balthazar flicked a pass to Jacques, who duped the Leyden keeper (Alfredo Recendez) into straying too far out off his line, then booted the ball into the back of the net.
Masters (3 saves) made his best stop on a curving shot by Christian Sosnowski at the 11 minute mark of the first half, and the Eagles never really threatened again thanks to the stiff defense put up by ETHS’ Bret Lowry, Ben Rogan and Mark Roth.
Rogan suffered an ankle injury early in the first overtime period and the Kits didn’t skip a beat with junior reserve Henry Young replacing him. Evanston broke through for the game-winner when Arturo Ramirez — who wasn’t sure he’d start because on an injury — crossed a perfect pass to Jacques, whose head shot was true.
Neither team scored in the mandatory second overtime period and the celebration began for the Wildkits after that.
“It seems like all of the goals Oli scores are game savers or game winners,” Calixte pointed out. “He’s used to scoring big goals, and as a third year varsity player, we expect that out of him. I think he dreams about those opportunities, so when it happens, it’s just part of the plan. He’s really been a go-to guy for us.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a better team than last year, not yet. But this is a family. People know their roles, they embrace their roles and they’ve done that for the past two years. These guys are really close off the field, too, and they have a collective goal. They want to do something big for the school.”