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Last year, the coronavirus pandemic gave John Leibforth the rare opportunity to play four sports during the calendar year at Evanston Township High School.
He took up cross country and track for the first time, continued as a member of the bowling program and also competed for the junior varsity soccer team.
But now that the Illinois High School Association has been able to go back to three distinct seasons, Leibforth is back to his first love – soccer.
He’s already making an impact in just his second varsity start. Leibforth scored his first varsity goal in his first home game Tuesday night at Lazier Field as the Wildkits opened play in the Evanston Invitational tournament with a 2-1 victory over Lake Forest Academy.
Leibforth’s goal in the 57th minute turned out to be the game-winner for the Kits when Lake Forest scored on a misdirected shot off an ETHS fullback defender in the second half. Evanston improved to 2-0-1 on the season.
Back in the early 1900s, there might have been a male athlete at ETHS who played football, basketball and baseball and may have competed in a track meet or two when he had free time. Or an athlete of more recent vintage might have quit a team after the first game or two and then played another sport in the same season, adding to his resume and pushing the total to four in a single year.
But none of them presumably enjoyed the experience as much as Leibforth.
“I didn’t plan on playing four sports until the soccer season got pushed back [from its usual fall spot on the Illinois High School Association calendar),” Leibforth said. “Then I decided to go out for cross country so I would be in better shape for soccer. I just wanted to get in shape, but I really liked running and the cross country community. That’s why I went out for track, too, and I’ve been bowling all four years now.”
Leibforth built on his experience with the junior varsity cross country squad and gradually worked his way into a starting job on the 3,200-meter relay team for the Wildkits during the spring/summer track season that extended into late June, competing in both the conference and sectional meets as a relay runner.
“I got to running 4 or 5 miles a day instead of just 1 (for soccer training), and I fell in love with running. And it’s definitely made me a better soccer player, because a center mid [back] like me probably does more running than anyone else on the field,” Leibforth said. “It’s made a huge difference for both my endurance and my speed.”
He’s one of those seniors who persevered and finally cracked the starting soccer lineup as a senior. He didn’t score a single goal as a junior varsity player, but found the back of the net Tuesday on a pass from classmate Johnny Schoen.
“This is a really cool experience, to be able to score my first goal in our first home game, in front of our home crowd. It really means a lot to me,” Leibforth said. “I’ve played soccer all my life and this is a big steppingstone, for me to get to this point. Just making the varsity is a big deal to me. I even went out and shaved my head (a tradition that most newbies to the ETHS varsity follow at the start of the season).
“I’m off to a good start. Hopefully I can continue to play well and set up my teammates.”
Five saves for Wildkit goalie
Evanston started slow on offense Tuesday but got on the board first on a penalty kick by Sebastian Leon in the 17th minute, after he was obstructed in the box before receiving a pass. The Kits didn’t score again until Leibforth’s lefty shot from about the 15-yard line provided an insurmountable two-goal advantage.
“The second half was much better than the first, even though we gave up that goal,” said Evanston head coach Franz Calixte. “We hit the wall a little bit in that first half. We’re not in game shape yet. We still have to get our sea legs for an 80-minute game, even though we go hard in practice. That’s pretty typical for this time of year.
“We’re starting to see more of the things we’d like to see from them, like more combination plays in the offensive one-third of the field.”
Goalie Chance Pape was credited with five saves for Evanston, which resumes play in the round-robin tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2, against Francis Parker.