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Sometimes just the ability to keep playing the game the same way you played it during the regular season is what separates true champions from the rest of a state tournament field.
Evanston’s girls couldn’t find a way to do that this weekend and fell short of their goal of achieving the program’s second state soccer title.
Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Lincoln-Way Central in the third-place game at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state tournament at North Central College in Naperville sent a remarkable and talented Wildkit team out on a losing note.
After also losing 2-0 to Barrington in Friday’s semifinals, Evanston lost as many games on the final weekend as they dropped all season. The flat ending to one of the best seasons in program history left coach Stacy Salgado’s squad with a final record of 21-4-1.
Even the fact that the ETHS girls brought back a state trophy for only the second time didn’t offer much consolation for a tearful group of 13 seniors.
The trophy they wanted was one to match the 2002 state championship team.
‘‘Can we celebrate fourth place? We can celebrate a great season,” Salgado said. “Obviously, this is not the way we wanted it to end. Overall, I think they all did very well this season to put themselves into position to win a state title. Not many teams can say that.
“You always want to peak at the end of the season, but it’s hard to do that in the state tournament when you have a lot of aches and pains and not everyone is 100% [physically]. This is a very special group of seniors and the experience of being here together with them was great.”
Salgado had to dig deep into her team’s bench for the finale because of injuries. Defender Sarah Sollinger was already out after suffering a broken collarbone in the sectional finals, and midfielder Adriana Merriam (injured back) and goalie Ariel Kite (ribs) were also forced to watch from the sidelines.
Evanston yielded all four goals over the weekend on set pieces – corner kicks or restarts – and for the first time all season appeared disorganized on defense. Shea Ackman, who stepped in to replace Sollinger in the starting lineup, was too ill (fever, flu symptoms) to start Friday’s contest and the Wildkits fell behind quickly with different defenders in place versus a Barrington corner kick.
On offense, Evanston couldn’t get anything going in either game until sophomore Jocelyn Leigh scored her team-leading 27th goal with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in the third-place game.
“It’s a little hard to celebrate now because we had such high hopes,” admitted senior forward Nadia Van den Berg. “It is disappointing – but it’s also cool to be fourth in the state.
“We’ve lost a lot of key players, and I agree, we didn’t play how we played all season. We didn’t use losing yesterday as motivation, and it was almost like we kind of forgot how to play. We just dropped off collectively as a team.
“All of those goals we gave up were on set pieces and that’s what’s really disappointing. We gave away so many corners and we were super unorganized when we were trying to defend them. We didn’t man-mark [one on one] them, we didn’t take the initiative on defense.
“It’s hard because all of the seniors played together going back to when we were little kids. From the very beginning we talked about winning state this year. Now I keep thinking what if, what if? But there’s no point in thinking like that.”
Lincoln-Way Central, which fell to eventual champion Metea Valley 2-0 in the other semifinal, broke through for the game’s first goal in the 12th minute. A corner attempt by the Knights’ Grace Grundhofer caught new ETHS goalie Shea Lucas and the rest of the defense out of position. No one covered the back post and the shot deflected off the bar and into the net.
Lucas, a sophomore, was appearing in just the third varsity game of her career – and that included a mere 30 seconds of playing time in Friday’s semifinals when Kite went briefly to the bench after being hit in the ribs. Lucas finished with three saves and did keep the Knights scoreless until midway through the second half, when a flip throw-in by Grundhofer led to a goal by teammate Madisyn Kenworthy.
Evanston, meanwhile, mustered just five shots on goal and three off-target.
“I thought our goalie stepped up well,” said Salgado. “That second goal came on a loose ball in the box. Lincoln-Way is very solid in the air and they played a compact and composed style. They made it hard for us to break through, although it was nice to get that one at the end.
“Adriana [Merriam] wasn’t able to play at all and that was a huge loss for us in the midfield. She’s a player who can keep the defense guessing and she’s usually able to spring our outside forwards [for successful scoring runs].”
The Friday loss to Barrington found the Wildkits back on their heels right from the start, when the Fillies’ Kate Lubinsky scored with just 3:22 elapsed in the contest. Nicole Gwiasada added an insurance goal for Barrington in the 49th minute.
“That early goal hurt us,” Salgado said. “It really shook us. And we had trouble with the constant pressure that they brought.
“We worked against those corners just yesterday and we’ve gotten better at it as the season went on. Barrington is probably the most all-around consistent team we’ve played all season. They’re very good in the air and they were able to clear our through balls quickly.
“If we came out and played our game, we’d have been fine, But we didn’t.”