Caitlyn Dalton’s first reaction after scoring a goal in the first overtime Tuesday night at the Maine South Sectional tournament was to embrace the entire Evanston soccer team.
But that group hug had to wait. The Wildkits survived a “man down” player disadvantage for the final 8 minutes, 47 seconds of the second overtime period before scoring a 1-0 triumph over No. 2 seed Loyola Academy.
Dalton’s goal sent Evanston to the sectional championship game and a rematch with two-time defending state champion New Trier on Friday night at 5 p.m. The two teams split during the regular season, and the winner will advance to the New Trier Super-Sectional next Tuesday.
Evanston earned payback against the Ramblers, the team that eliminated them in last year’s sectional tourney. ETHS improved to 20-3-3 on the season, only the fourth time in the history of the program that the Wildkits have reached the 20-victory plateau.
Dalton’s header, off a corner kick from Alex Berkley, came with 1:47 remaining in the first OT. Under Illinois High School Association postseason rules, teams must play at least two overtimes after a regulation tie before a tournament game is decided.
Dalton’s score broke up a taut defensive duel between two teams that are used to pitching shutouts at their foes. Loyola finished 18-4-4 after registering 19 shutouts this spring, including a 0-0 tie with the Wildkits when the two teams met back in March.
“This is definitely one of the biggest highlights of my career,” said a beaming, but exhausted Dalton after the marathon win. “After I scored I turned and wanted to run over and hug every single player on the bench. Those are my sisters. This is the closest team I’ve ever been on in 10-plus years of playing soccer. We’re a family, and it was all about heart tonight. When it comes to our closeness as a team, nothing can break us down.
“Loyola is really a tough team and they’re really tough on defense. What broke them down was the pressure we kept on them tonight. They don’t give up many corner kicks — believe me — but the pressure we put on them is the reason we got that corner.
“Coach (Maurizio) Grillo really knows how to motivate us. He told us (after regulation play) that you still have 20 minutes left of a very long season, and this will be payback because you guys want this more than Loyola. He made it so clear to us that we had the ability to win this game. He reminded us just how good we could be.”
“I just told them I enjoyed watching them play the last 20 minutes (of the 2nd half), so just keep it going,” Grillo said. “I felt a goal was going to come for us, although I didn’t think it would come on a set piece like that. We did have some other chances to score. But it was hard for us to penetrate against them, because of their talent and because they’re such a well-coached team.
“Hands down, Loyola is the best defensive team we’ve played against this year.”
Evanston senior goalie Sheridan Cleave racked up 9 saves for the winners, but a defensive unit led by seniors Kate Kremin and Julia Kenney kept the Ramblers at bay even after ETHS freshman Hadley Bushala was ejected following a collision with Loyola keeper Maggie Avery early in the second overtime. Bushala was hustling after a 50-50 ball when she banged into Avery and knocked her to the turf.
Evanston continued with only 10 players for the remainder of the physical contest, a game that featured 6 yellow cards in addition to Bushala’s red card.
“It was a physical game, but it wasn’t dirty,” Grillo pointed out. “If we had let Loyola win all of those balls in the air and on the ground, it would have been the end of us (in postseason play). We had to match their level of physicality tonight.”
Kremin helped the Kits control the final 9 nervous minutes, constantly breaking up Loyola’s offensive thrusts. Earlier, the senior standout had suffered a bloody nose when she took a ball in the face.
Evanston put only 3 shots on goal in regulation play, and had its best chance to score midway through the second half when junior Maia Cella somehow dribbled through a crowd of Loyola defenders and forced Avery to make a stop of her rocket shot.
In the first OT, the Kits built up the pressure. It started with a shot by Berkley that Avery stopped, but almost surrendered a rebound opportunity. Two minutes later, Bushala passed to Kira Favakeh, forcing Avery to knock the ball out of bounds and set up the ensuing corner kick from Berkley.
Her pass found Dalton almost unmarked, and the senior forward converted for what turned out to be the game-winner.