One defensive breakdown — that was all Loyola Academy’s soccer team was looking for against Evanston in Tuesday’s sectional semifinal showdown at Glenbrook North.
And the Ramblers knew what to do with that advantage when they finally got it, breaking through for the game-winning goal by sophomore forward Maggie Brett with 5 minutes, 27 seconds remaining that ended Evanston’s season with a 2-1 defeat.
Loyola (18-6) avenged a 1-0 loss to the Wildkits during the regular season and advanced to the regional title game against three-time defending state champion New Trier.
No. 2 seed Evanston bowed out with a final record of 15-6-3 in Stacy Salgado’s first year as head coach, after rallying from what could have been an early knockout punch by the Ramblers.
Loyola scored in the first minute of play before Evanston regrouped to force a 1-1 tie at halftime. Sophomore Hadley Bushala’s goal in the 37th minute appeared to swing the momentum firmly back on the side of ETHS.
But it didn’t stay there long enough for the Kits to score again.
“Loyola had a game plan against us, and they stuck with it,” Salgado said. “They kept trying to break us down quickly with through balls and counters. We knew that, but we weren’t able to stop it. When they score it became a frantic game and we were not able to find feet and play possession (soccer) like we usually do.
“I would’ve like to see us play more of our game tonight, like we played at the end of the first half. At that point, we felt like we were the better team. But throughout the season we’ve had issues with patience.”
Bushala, just off the injured list, scored the lone ETHS goal but the tally was the direct result of the brilliance of senior Maia Cella. The University of Wisconsin recruit’s ability to weave through traffic without losing possession paid off again for a player who left her mark as one of the best players in the history of the program during her 4-year varsity career.
Cella’s uncanny ability to handle the ball with both feet, combined with her quickness and knowledge of the game, produced scoring chances too numerous to count while she wore a Wildkit uniform. It happened for the last time Tuesday night when she gained possession and maneuvered past four different Rambler defenders.
Cella’s shot resulted in a one-handed stop when Loyola goalkeeper Maggie Avery dove to her right. But all Avery really did was slow the shot down, and she left the rebound for Bushala, who pushed the ball into the back of the net with 3:28 left in the first half.
The Wildkits will graduate three senior starters — Cella and defenders Emma Dzwierzynski and Lauren DeMaria — but there’s no question who they’ll miss the most.
“Maia is not a replaceable player,” said Salgado. “She’s the kind of player who comes by once every 10 years or so. She really showed up for us today. She had a great senior season and really that senior leadership role to a place above and beyond.
“You could hear the other coach (Loyola’s Craig Snower) saying ‘Find Maia!’ right from the start of the game. She finds space and she can quickly change direction. We’ll have a very skilled group of girls coming back, but obviously we’re going to miss these seniors.”
Salgado took over the ETHS program with only a couple of seasons as an assistant coach under her belt, but felt the Kits lived up to expectations in the 2017 season even in a program where the bar is always set high.
“I felt connected after the great high school experience I had here, and wanted these girls to have that experience, have fun and get to play for their community and their parents,” she said. “I think it was a good season. We got the No. 2 seed (for the sectional) and it was huge to win a regional championship.
“I’m very happy with the way the girls peaked at the end of the year. I thought they played some of their best soccer at the end of the season — but not tonight.”