Like the other head coaches at Evanston Township High School, Amy Gonzales wouldn’t promote a freshman softball player just to have her sit on the bench most of the season.

So when the Wildkits finally open the 2022 campaign – at home on Wednesday versus Lake Forest, weather permitting – don’t be surprised if Maya Nelson, Delila Liston and Aayna Ghose are all in the starting lineup for the varsity squad.

Those freshmen are part of a strong incoming class that is the product of the creation of the Evanston Express feeder program a few years ago. Gonzales is hoping the chemistry of five returning starters and the influx of those first-year players can help the Wildkits bounce back from last year’s 10-12 season that ended in the regional championship game loss to Whitney Young.

Two of the best players in ETHS history won’t be back. Slugging shortstop Chloe Haack graduated and pitcher Serafina Goodwill is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL ligament playing club volleyball just prior to the start of softball preseason workouts.

Goodwill made a big impact as a freshman last year and was part of a freshman class that featured four hurlers. The lack of pitching depth in a fast-pitch sport that is dominated by players on the pitcher’s mound has held the Wildkits back for decades, but Goodwill came on strong at the end of her first year, striking out 15 in a regional tournament win over Lake Park.

She also homered three times in one game – against Glenbrook North – and she might be missed more in the middle of the ETHS batting order than on the mound. As a freshman, she batted .443 on the year and ranked just behind Haack in home runs and runs-batted-in.

Gonzales had planned more of a rotation on the mound this season, after Goodwill appeared in 21 of 22 games, including 20 starts. Now the head coach doesn’t have as many options, with sophomore Lexi Lennon and Nelson likely to divide the mound chores now.

Lennon split her time between varsity and junior varsity last spring and her only varsity win came in relief over archrival New Trier.

“I had hoped ideally to have a rotation of two or three kids. Losing Serafina was definitely a big blow to us,” Gonzales said. “Our goal was actually to be able to use Serafina in the infield, and maybe at catcher too, because she’s so versatile.

“From the beginning of the season to the end, Serafina progressed so much on the mound last year. She finally got into a groove at the end of the year and it would have been nice to be able to build around her this year. But injuries are part of athletics and we’ll have to make adjustments. She’s not going to be able to contribute for us, so the others have to step up and help out more. I think the [remaining] pitchers understand that their time will be different now, that they’ll throw more and have more expectations on them. But I think they can handle it.”

Nelson, shortstop Liston and corner infielder Ghose have flashed potential but obviously haven’t faced varsity-level pitching yet. But Gonzales is already comparing Liston to her predecessor, the hard-hitting Haack, even though she knows it will take time for all of the youngsters to mature.

“I would never bring them up to sit on the bench,” Gonzales added. “Their roles might change from game to game, but they’re going to play.”

Catcher Katy Patton, a senior who batted .290 and slugged at a .551 clip last spring, will be counted on in the middle of the ETHS attack. Most of the other returning starters — third baseman Kathy Cleland-Horn, second baseman Eva Eiseman, center fielder Kelsey Blickenstaff and left fielder Frances Heldt — didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball last year even though Evanston’s team batting average was a respectable .278.

Help will also come from three senior outfielders moving up from the junior varsity ranks — Soleil Anderson, Anne-Grace Gambi and Carmella Burns — plus junior Ariana Munoz.

“Hopefully we’ll see some more consistency from the girls who saw varsity level pitching for the first time last year,” Gonzales pointed out. “And we do still have a few moving parts to figure out, as far as finding out who fits best and where. I think they all just need more opportunities at different positions.

“I really think we’re going to be strong up the middle this year. Kelsey is just excellent in center field — she has such a quick first step — and she really took control of center at the end of last year. She’s so strong out there.”

Evanston is slated to play a varsity doubleheader on Saturday at Loyola Academy.   

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