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Players in the Evanston boys soccer program know from past history that no matter how good you are, and what skill level you reach, you’ll usually have to wait until your senior year to get major minutes when it comes to playing time.

That soccer culture is still alive and well and thriving, and that’s what makes head coach Franz Calixte’s job the most difficult on the entire coaching staff at Evanston among those who actually conduct personnel cuts.

Why? Because Calixte has to figure out every year which veteran players to move to the varsity, and which will remain with the junior varsity.

That job didn’t get any easier as the Wildkits return to a “normal” schedule this fall after being placed in the winter/spring season last year by the Illinois High School Association during the coronavirus pandemic. And that pandemic didn’t cause any ETHS athletes to reconsider coming back out for soccer as seniors.

Calixte kept a full roster of 25 players for the varsity this fall – 21 of them seniors – as the Kits continued to reload, and opened their season Monday with a 2-2 tie against Palatine Fremd.

If it’s required, it won’t be easy for the Wildkits to do much social distancing on the team bus to away games.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever kept that many guys. Maybe in my first year as coach?” noted Calixte. “Usually we carry about 22. Our depth is really our strength this year. If you were on the outside looking in at one of our practices, you wouldn’t know who our starters are.

“The trick is for all of them to have the same goal. If we’re all on the same page, and do as well as we possibly can, we’ll be OK. Right now I think we have a solid team, but we still have some things to hash out. I think we have the potential to be very good.”

ETHS compiled a 9-3-2 record last spring during an abbreviated campaign, and captured the Central Suburban League South division tournament that was played as a substitute for the usual State tournament series.

Leading scorer Sebastian Leon netted 14 goals – exactly one per game – a pace that Calixte certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the senior forward maintain in an expanded schedule.

In fact, Leon scored both goals in the season opener – one via penalty kick – and is actually ahead of that pace so far.

He heads a list of returnees that also includes about a half dozen players who saw extended varsity action as juniors.

“The past few years our leading scorer has usually had about 13 or 14 goals, and Sebastian did that in just 14 games,” said the head coach. “He played midfield for his [summer] club team [F.C. United] and still scored more than most of their forwards. He’s really something in the final one-third of the field. From 20 yards on in, he can beat the defender – and he can finish. There are a lot of guys who can beat a defender, but not many who can finish like he can.

“He’s a sharpshooter who always seems to find the target.”

Midfielder Johnny Schoen, defender Braden Weiss, midfielder Bazzy Schultz and midfielder Will Travis are all returning starters who have the potential to continue as college players. All four played on club teams that made deep postseason runs to national tournaments, but as usual, most of Evanston’s players were spread out among five or six clubs again in the off-season, making it difficult even for players in the same graduating class to build team chemistry and camaraderie.

Calixte and assistant coach Fernando Ferrer, however, have a knack for finding the right players for the right positions on the field and a strong soccer culture has just about eliminated any me-first notions any booter might have.

Calixte said he was reminded while watching the Olympic Games this summer about the value of competition and how it can bring out the best in everyone, starter or non-starter.

“For most of our guys, they have to go even harder in practices than they do in the games,” said the ETHS coach. “I’m a firm believer that you get what you earn, and there’s an opportunity here for everyone to earn [playing time].

“Watching all those Olympic records get shattered, I kept thinking about how it was because of the competition and training they had against each other that made it possible. That slogan ‘Iron Shapes Iron’ really resonated with me.

“We have so much depth right now that sometimes this year I might not put a guy in at the start, so I can bring them in off the bench to make an impact. That’s why these first five games are so important for us so we can work on establishing our identity and finding the right rotations.”

Veterans Chance Pape, who started in the opener, and Henry Sternstein are battling for the starting goalkeeper job and could end up sharing the position all year.

Junior Sam Darer, the only non-senior in the starting lineup, joined Treavis and Isaac Muir in the midfield versus Fremd. Leon heads a three-pronged attack at forward, aided by Adam Hammock and Erik Jimenez, with Weiss, Connor Bailey and Bennet Pascal forming the back line.

Sophomore Diego Velasquez is a midfielder to watch. “He covers a lot of ground, and we wouldn’t bring a sophomore up to the varsity if he wasn’t going play a lot. He finished first in all of our conditioning tests, too – and by a lot!” Calixte praised.

Evanston plays on the road Thursday at Waukegan. The Wildkits will host the four-team Evanston Invitational tournament next week, starting on Tuesday when they meet Lake Forest Academy at 7 p.m. Also participating in the tournament are Francis Parker and Payton Prep.

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