If any member of the Evanston girls soccer team knows how to play through the pain, it’s senior Vanessa Eljaiek.
The ETHS forward played an entire season wearing a knee brace after surgery, and she wasn’t about to let another injury keep her from finishing her career on a high note.
Hampered by a severely sprained ankle that has limited both her practice time and game minutes, Eljaiek lifted the Wildkits to a Class 3A regional tournament championship in a persistent rain drizzle Friday night at Lazier Field.
Eljaiek’s goal with 8 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the second overtime period kept the Wildkits alive in the postseason, delivering a 1-0 victory over Prospect. The Kit girls, seeded 4th in the Glenbrook South Sectional field, will play top-seeded New Trier next Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the semifinals at GBS.
Coach Stacy Salgado’s squad improved to 14-7-3 overall after Eljaiek, who sat out most of the second half, came off the bench and dominated the overtime periods. Her shot from about 30 yards out skidded past Prospect keeper Gianna Rossi, taking one hop on the wet Lazier Field turf before finding the back of the net.
It was a fitting conclusion to what could have been Eljaiek’s final home appearance — although ETHS will also host the supersectional in two weeks and the Kits wouldn’t mind coming back for an encore.
“It could be my last home game, so that goal is very special, very memorable for me,” said the senior forward. “I wasn’t going to shoot because I didn’t know I had that much room, but (teammate) Avery Ackman yelled ‘shoot it, it’s your shot!’ so I just ripped it. It was kind of a Hail Mary shot.
“I sprained my ankle about three and a half weeks ago and it turned out a lot worse than I shot. I know I came back from it too soon, but I almost felt obligated to for Senior Night and for the New Trier game that same week. I’m just trying to finish out the season now.
“I usually tell Coach when it’s really hurting me bad. Right now, I’m maybe 70 percent. When I stop running, that’s when it gets sore, but when I can get my adrenaline going I’m back to about 80 or 90 percent. Tonight I sat out the last 10 minutes of the second half but I said we’re not losing this game. I had to go back in.”
“It’s definitely been a challenge because Vanessa hasn’t really had time to recover,” Salgado said. “Some days we’ve held her out of practice completely. I kinda leave it up to her and I just try to keep open communications with her to see how she feels.
“Overall, we played a pretty solid game tonight. When we played our game, we looked strong, but we didn’t do it for the entire game. It’s exciting to win a regional championship — especially at home — and for us to beat New Trier we’ll have to play a full 80 minutes and stay connected the entire game.”
Evanston required more than 80 minutes on Friday night, although it appeared that the hosts had broken a scoreless deadlock with 60 seconds remaining in regulation play. A final Kit flurry that began with a corner kick from Hadley Bushala saw the ETHS junior regain possession when the boot bounced off a Prospect defender.
Bushala pounded a shot toward the goal and the ball wound up in the back of the net in a mob of players from both sides. But the officials disallowed the score, denying Eljaiek a chance for an early game-winner.
“I don’t know who kicked it, but I headed the ball and flicked it up over the goalie,” she said. “I think she touched it and it might have hit the crossbar. But one of our players knocked her down, so they didn’t count it.”
Wildkit goalie Sylvi Imrem only had to handle two shots by the defense-minded Knights, who ended their season at 9-8-3. Evanston’s best chance to score came in the 66th minute when Keara Kerr crossed a pass from the right side that bounced untouched through the goal crease, with neither friend nor foe available at the back post.