Annie Lesch almost certainly won’t return as head coach for the Evanston girls varsity field hockey team next fall.
But that’s not the only reason she would have liked just five more minutes with the Wildkits Wednesday night.
A fourth-quarter Evanston rally fell short and host Loyola Academy scored a 2-1 victory in the sectional semifinals of the Illinois High School Association state tournament. The loss dropped the Wildkits to a final record of 7-9 under interim coach Lesch, who filled in for Jenner Johnson while Johnson took maternity leave this season.
Makayla Clark’s goal with 42 seconds remaining in regulation couldn’t prevent the season-ending loss for the Wildkits, who lost to the Ramblers for the second time this season. That late momentum surge came as the visitors summoned up a sense of urgency on offense that proved to be too little, too late.
Evanston ended the season under Lesch with a six-game losing skid, but that was more a product of a schedule quirk that found the Wildkits facing the toughest teams on their regular season schedule in the final couple of weeks of the year than any indication that the program didn’t make progress under the new coach.
The Kits also lost top defender Sofia Rocca, one of only two senior starters along with Anna Marks, to a knee injury suffered during a loss to Glenbrook South at the beginning of that losing streak. ETHS only mustered one goal in those six games and couldn’t mount much of a threat Wednesday in chilly conditions at Loyola’s artificial turf field on the hill in Glenview.
Prior to Clark’s goal, they only put one other shot on target against Loyola goalie Eleanor Larsen.
“I thought we played well the whole game tonight. It sucks not be going on in the playoffs, but it was a great finish,” Lesch said. “I saw them hungry tonight [on offense] and we couldn’t have ended any stronger than that.
“I thought the two teams were pretty evenly matched, but the first time we played Loyola [a 2-0 loss] we had more corner opportunities [restarts]. “
Clark whistled a backhand shot past Larsen for her team-best 11th goal of the season with the clock ticking down to 42 seconds remaining. She had one more chance after an Evanston corner try but couldn’t connect on that final attempt.
“I’m very proud we were able to finish against them with a goal, but it would’ve been nice to get another one,” said Clark. “But it was cool to get one. We worked a lot on our passing this week in practice so we could create more opportunities against them tonight.
“We have a couple of girls [freshman Bridget Durkin, sophomore Jesse LeSage] who never played field hockey before this year and wound up as starters for us. They did a great job and we have some other super-athletic girls like them. We only lose four seniors and we have a whole new class of players coming in. We have a lot of hope for next year.”
Loyola scored in the second and third quarters against ETHS goalie Bridget Lesch, the coach’s daughter. Both tallies came on rebounds, as Loyola’s Erin Keating found the back of the net at the 9:45 mark of the second quarter and Greta Kavanagh put back her own misses with 2:10 left in the third period.
Lesch agreed to substitute for Johnson this fall partly because she’d have the opportunity to coach in a program where both her daughters (sophomore Bridget, freshman Natalie) are participants. And she leaves with no regrets.
“I just came in here to help keep the program going and to help support Jenner and her family,” she said. “We’re all hoping she’ll come back to coach. I’ll be ready to help whether it’s as an assistant coach or as a parent. Whatever it takes.
“I wanted to keep the program where it’s at, and I think we did that. We had a lot of girls who never played varsity field hockey before, and I think everyone learned a lot. And I think the future looks good and I think we should have three full teams (varsity, JV, freshman) next year. Some of the girls coming into the program now really identify [themselves] as field hockey players first. They are super into field hockey and they’re hungry to play.”
Lesch described the season as memorable even though the Wildkits came up short Wednesday.
“We had an amazing team and there was no drama, none at all,” she said. “They were excited to come and play every day in practice and now the culture here is awesome.
“We felt the great support from the athletic department and this year was an amazing experience for me. This job kind of fell into my lap – and it was a gift for me, to be able to have this season with these girls.”