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The Class of 2015 was the last group of Evanston seniors to win a Central Suburban League South division soccer championship.
And a shift in the program’s focus — due to the coronavirus pandemic that wiped out the Illinois High School Association state tournament series — will make winning that title the No. 1 priority for the Wildkits in this rare spring season.
Pushed back from the fall calendar, the abbreviated spring season is a payoff for all those seniors who didn’t know if they’d ever get to suit up and play again. Winning the CSL South would be an even bigger payoff than usual because of the unusual circumstances.
Evanston completed the “non-conference” portion of the schedule by winning four of six matches against foes from the CSL North division this week, and can take a giant step toward capturing the CSL South crown starting with Tuesday’s date at New Trier.
ETHS head coach Franz Calixte has guided teams to the IHSA sectional finals for seven straight years and has always tried to build his squads so that they’re peaking when it’s time for postseason play. It’s a tried and true formula that has worked for one of the State’s elite programs, but now the veteran coach is taking a different approach.
“I’d still rather take one state championship than 15 conference championships,” said Coach Calixte, “and my mentality has always been not to show all of our cards that last week of the season even if we were playing a New Trier or a Maine South and the conference was still at stake. This year? It’s a little different.
“At the beginning of the year we talked about making the best of this season, and giving the season some meaning, and that means winning the conference. This is the season that shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and we want to make the best of it.”
The coach is used to fielding senior-heavy teams and then turning things over to the next class, but this year brought back ZERO returning starters from a team that finished 18-2-2 and lost to St. Patrick in the Class 3A sectional title game. Four seniors who did log considerable playing time — Chhabi Darjee, Paul McCandlish, Charlie Fies, and Charlie Levisay — have provided a corps of leaders to build around.
Chabi paced the team with 14 assists off the bench last year and Paul, who didn’t begin the year with the varsity as a junior, earned a promotion when two varsity defenders were sidelined with injuries and couldn’t be dislodged from the lineup once he got a chance to show his skills on defense.
Coach Calixte knew it would take time to get his players on the same page and one-goal losses to Deerfield and Niles North were the result during the early stages of the season.
But the veteran mentor thought his team turned the corner with a 5-goal splurge against Highland Park in the second half, and the Kits buried Maine East 7-0 on a rainy and chilly Thursday night at Lazier Field behind junior Sebastian Leon’s first varsity hat trick and a pair of goals by senior Alex Pelaez.
Solid play by both goalies, senior Ben Weyman and junior Chance Pape, has also been a plus for the 4-2 Wildkits.
“I think just getting game experience is a big key for us,” Coach Calixte pointed out. “This is a brand new team, and the seniors and juniors played on three different teams last year (varsity, junior varsity, sophomore). Most years we understand what our identity is before the conference [schedule] starts, but this year they’ve been thrown into the fire.
“We’ve been having a hard time getting our forwards to connect because none of them have played together before. We have to find our identity as a team, and we have to establish the way we want to play.”
Evanston knocked New Trier out of the State playoffs last year after losing to the Trevians 4-0 during the regular season. Tuesday’s showdown in Northfield comes with the hosts as heavy favorites and with a revenge motive for that defeat already in place.
“This was supposed to be THE year for the New Trier seniors, and they’d have been expecting to win a state championship,” said Coach Calixte. “They’re the team with bullseyes on their backs. They’re that good, and we’ll have to play with a lot of discipline to have a chance to beat them.”
The two rivals — Evanston leads the all-time series with 43 wins to 42 for the Trevians — are guaranteed to meet one more time after that, however. The Central Suburban League will conduct round-robin tournaments within three “pods” over the last week of the season, with New Trier, ETHS, Maine South, and Glenbrook South all competing in the same tournament against each other.