The message from Evanston Hockey head coach Evan Nielsen was clear heading into the Feb. 20 second game of the Illinois High School Hockey League North-Central Division championship series: Play with consistent effort, prepare for adversity and focus on defense.
Evanston, the high school club hockey team, had fallen short of these objectives in game one against PREP hockey, losing 6-2 to put the Wildkits in an 0-1 hole in the three-game series.
During the regular season, PREP had gone undefeated in the league but Nielsen was confident in his players – if they could deliver a full three periods in game two.
The full 45 minutes of execution, however, did not happen for Evanston, which fell 4-2 to PREP, a team composed of players from Prospect, Rolling Meadows and Elk Grove high schools.
PREP jumped on Evanston instantly, with a goal in the first 25 seconds, and the lead quickly ballooned to 3-0 in the first five minutes of the game. PREP was able to coast to the league championship in front of its home crowd, ending Evanston’s hopes for its first North-Central championship.
“I told the guys that there was a lot of hockey left to play at that point but we certainly dug ourselves a hole,” Nielsen said. “It was surprising to me. I thought [game one] Monday would be a wake-up call for the level of play and competition that we needed, but for whatever reason it wasn’t there at the start.”
PREP’s three-goal barrage to start game two proved to be too much to overcome for Evanston. The team rallied back with goals in the second and third period, thanks to more consistent team defense and being able to hold on to the puck.
Nielsen praised defensemen James Val and Ilija Marich and forwards Will Dunlap and Charles Dillman for their effort in trying to right the ship.
However, it still wasn’t enough to overcome PREP’s potent combination of size and speed. The final nail in the coffin: two Evanston penalties within 30 seconds in the final three minutes, which brought the comeback to a halt.
“The kids had a great season, but we ran into a good team,” Nielsen said. “That’s a good team over there that is skilled and works hard. As disappointing as the game result and series result was, it was good experience for our group.”
Then on Feb. 25, Evanston bowed out in the round of 16 of the state championship tournament to Stevenson, the No. 2 ranked team in the state, marking the official end of the 2022-23 season.
Despite the losses, it was one of most successful seasons in Evanston hockey history. The team finished second in the league, with an 18-7-3 record and a 38-19-5 record overall including tournaments.
It was also marathon of a season for Evanston, from mid-September until the final week of February. The season included a six-week undefeated stretch – from mid-December until February – before it ended in the league championship loss to PREP.
Overall, the year was a major success for the club hockey program, which spans from youth leagues up to high school to give Evanston kids a chance to compete on the ice.
‘An awesome experience’
Nielsen, in his first year as head coach, said that while the season finale may not have been perfect, Evanston’s accomplishments cannot be diminished.
“It’s been an awesome experience being a part of it, and the kids worked so hard,” Nielsen said. “As much as it stings to come up short in the championship series, second place in a league with 15 teams is still quite the accomplishment.”
It was an older team, with half the roster made up of seniors. Nielsen said the maturity on the team allowed him to implement his game plan without any issues. It also created an a strong team atmosphere rooted in leadership and support to achieve the common goal of winning.
The team captains – Luke Flangel, Garrett O’Hara, Jimmy Val, Nick Ghate and Dunlap – were the leaders selected by their peers, but Nielsen said everyone had a role in leadership.
“We’ve got some savvy veterans in there,” he said. “Obviously, we have some different types of players with different types of personalities, but I think as that group of seniors goes, we go as a team.”
He commended the group for the growth the players showed throughout the season while learning a new system and the ability to play for one another. Nielsen said he was hopeful for success in his first season in charge and is proud of how the group worked hard to realize the heights the team reached this winter.
‘It’s been great to see them rewarded’
The nonleague tournaments played a key role. The Wildkits took multiple bus trips around the Midwest to enhance their schedule, and the moments together on these trips created a familylike chemistry. The cohesion showed Nielsen that the coaches’ messages were resonating with the players and created a buzz that they were able to accomplish something new for the club hockey program.
“Any time you are working with a new coach, it is going to be a little bit different,” Nielsen said. “I think they’ve really bought into what we are trying to do right now, and it’s been great to see them rewarded for all their hard work and effort.”
The focus right now is giving this year’s team the accolades it deserves for its accomplishments in the 2022-23 season.
Up next, Evanston will try to figure out how to duplicate this success to turn a good season into a great program that is here to stay year after year.
Thank you for covering the often overlooked Evanston Hockey Team!! They had a great season with tremendous fan support!! The seniors are an outstanding group, have been a treat to watch and will be missed! GO KITS!!! 🧡💙🧡