Evanston’s soccer team hasn’t exactly struggled during the 2022 campaign despite dropping the last two games on the regular season schedule.
But you could make the case that the Wildkits have only scratched the surface of their potential while also earning the No. 2 seed in the Class 3A Glenbrook South Sectional in the process.
The Kits offered their fans a glimpse of what could be – and signaled that perhaps the best is yet to come in the postseason – with an eye-catching 15-minute stretch of play in the second half of Tuesday’s 4-1 trimming of Maine West in the Evanston Regional tournament opener at Lazier Field.
Moving the ball, sharing the ball and finishing shots were characteristics that Evanston hasn’t always displayed while playing the “beautiful game” but were highlights for the entire team as ETHS advanced to Saturday’s regional championship contest.
The Kits, now 13-4-3 overall, will face No. 8 seed Lane Tech Saturday at 5 p.m. Lane eliminated Loyola Academy 2-1 in two overtimes Tuesday to stay alive.
Evanston snapped out of a recent scoring slump as four different players – Bryan Maldonado, Nikita Studinskyi, Jack Kaplan and Hugo Blackwell – found the back of the net for the winners. That output, even coming against the No. 15 seeded team in the sectional, was a welcome sight after coach Franz Calixte watched his talented squad average just over 2 goals per game during the regular season.
“We got two in each half today, so that was definitely a step in the right direction,” said the veteran coach. “We were consistent. The good thing about this game is that we were able to consistently create opportunities to score. Hopefully, this will give us a taste of what we’re capable of as a team.”
With 92 assists on the season, including double figure efforts from Maldonado (12) and Sam Darer (11), no one could point a finger at selfish play as the cause for Evanston’s scoring difficulties. But the talent level in the program is still so high that sometimes players attempt too much 1-on-1 play – knowing they’re more skilled than the players they’re being guarded by – and the framework of team play suffers.
There’s also the trust factor, according to Calixte, in a program where the turnover on the varsity roster from one year to the next is usually about 90% new players who have to learn to work together.
“The [regular] season is supposed to be about blending all the individuals together. But they’re all just so talented, and I think there’s still a need for them to trust each other more,” Calixte said. “The more simple you play the game, the better it is for everyone. And we had a lot more clear opportunities to score in the second half today because that’s just what we did.”
Maldonado converted a pass from Blackwell just 5 minutes into the game to give the hosts some early breathing room with his team-leading 8th goal of the year. Studinskyi then knocked in a loose ball in front of the net in the 32nd minute for his first goal of the season. In between those two tallies, the Wildkits missed out on another chance when Maine West goalie Omar Rodea Espinosa made a diving save to deny Pascal Calonges’ penalty kick attempt.
But the best was yet to come in the second half.
Slick passing that set up a too-high shot by Darer in the early minutes of the second half offered a preview of a solid showing over that 15-minute stretch. The Kits scored only once during that time, as Kaplan worked a perfect give-and-go play with Maldonado and buried the return pass past Espinosa in the 48th minute.
Evanston’s last goal came on a corner kick from Benji Kozuira to Blackwell, who banged the ball in from close range. Maine West did counter a couple of minutes later on a goal by Hubert Przybylko, but all that did was spoil the shutout bid for ETHS junior keeper Cade Likhite. Likhite was credited with 4 saves for the winners.
“We’re back in the regional finals, and we can’t take that for granted,” added the Evanston coach. “Overall, this was a good win for us. Maine West packed it in on us [on defense] early, and it took us some time to adjust. Once we spread the field, we had good opportunities to score.”