Building a championship culture in any sport takes time at the high school level.
Evanston girls soccer head coach Stacy Salgado would agree. And she knows that the culture at ETHS started long before she arrived in the program as a player and went on to help win a state championship back in 2002.
Now, Salgado is tasked with maintaining that culture after leading the Wildkits to the Final Four for only the second time in school history last spring.
The Kit girls open the 2023 season on Wednesday at home against Highland Park at 6:30 p.m., hoping to build on last year’s 21-4-1 record. With three key starters returning – Ariel Kite in goal, Adriana Merriam in the midfield and junior Jocelyn Leigh at forward – Salgado and her staff are now in search of others who will embrace that championship culture.
A championship culture can mean different things to different observers, but it clearly includes having players who don’t worry about playing time or who scores the goals, players who practice hard every day, and players who also take care of business in the classroom.
That’s the kind of culture Salgado wants to maintain no matter what the final win-loss record is this spring.
“You have to have girls with the same mindset, that’s part of the culture thing,” said Salgado. “That’s 100% of what all coaches strive for, where the goals are the same and there’s the same overall mentality.
Salgado said with the graduation last spring of 13 seniors, “It’s a new group this year and we’ll go step by step this season, just like we do every season. It’s a process. We haven’t even really spoken about last season yet in practice. It’s a new, hungry group and we’ll build on what works for us this year. We just need to take a step back and make sure we’re all on the same page. I know they’re going to bring the work ethic, and I know we’ll go hard and challenge each other every day in practice.”
ETHS will rely on senior co-captains Kite, Merriam, defender Anna Bergmann and defender Jordin Kadiri to provide the leadership for a program that swept to Central Suburban League South division, regional, sectional and super-sectional championships last year before dropping back-to-back games at the Illinois High School Association state finals.
Evanston reeled off respective winning streaks of eight and seven games that spring with a collection of individual talent that came together as one. It marked only the third time in school history that ETHS has won a sectional crown, and that led to only the second trip to the Illinois High School Association state finals ever.
Injuries helped derail the Wildkits on that final weekend. Neither Merriam nor Kite was healthy enough to play in the third-place game, a 2-1 loss to Lincoln-Way Central, and other starters were either missing or banged up in what turned out to be a flat ending to a historic season.
Now the Kits, led by Merriam and Kite, are turning the page to 2023. And Leigh, who scored an eye-opening 27 goals as a sophomore, is expected to provide a similar offensive punch for an Evanston team that will play four of its first five scheduled games at home in the friendly confines of Lazier Field.
Leigh turned in one of the most productive scoring seasons in program history as a sophomore in a sport where it’s almost unheard of for a player to average a goal per game over the course of an entire season. Her ability to score goals in bursts has already earned the description of “special” and her ability to rise to the occasion was evident in the squad’s biggest games last spring.
She scored one of Evanston’s goals in a 2-1 elimination of rival New Trier in the sectional tournament, the first time since 1991 that ETHS had defeated the Trevians in a postseason game. Leigh then added a pair of goals in a double overtime win over Libertyville in the super sectional and netted her team’s only goal in two games at the state finals.
“When Jocelyn is confident and having fun out there, she can really be an awesome player,” praised Salgado. “She works so hard in practice and she’s so composed on the ball. I think she grew into her confidence last year and she looks a lot more confident this year, too. I knew what she was capable of, but she just wasn’t comfortable back when she was a freshman.
“Jocelyn might be marked more closely by other teams this year, but we’ll have a lot of other different points to attack from with players like Adriana, [junior] Syd Ross, and [freshman] Bridget Durkin.”
Others who figure to contribute at forward or in the midfield include seniors Shayna Da Silva, Lily Shure and Eva Francis; junior Syd Johnson; and sophomores Mia Darer, Maddie Ball and Madeline Varela.
“I think we’ll have some very dynamic combinations up top,” Salgado pointed out. “I saw Bridget play in the summer and she reminds me a lot of [former standout] Fran Iacuzzi. She’s fast and she gives you 100% effort. She’s always willing to learn, has a lot of energy and she doesn’t back down to anyone just because she’s a freshman. She’ll get her minutes.”
Goalie Kite missed the 2022 season finale with bruised ribs, giving then-sophomore Shea Lucas an unexpected starting opportunity in the net. It was only the second varsity game for Lucas. Both keepers are back to provide quality depth at that key position.
Stability in goal will be crucial for the Wildkits in the early stages of the season while Salgado and her staff try to rebuild the defensive unit into a cohesive group. Bergmann, Kadiri and classmate Molly Riley did get on the field for extended minutes last year and will be relied on in the early going along with senior Brigid Mulvihill, junior Jilian Denlow and sophomores Corin Viamille and Fiona Vosper.
“Defensively, we lost a lot [to graduation],” Salgado admitted. “We’re still trying to figure out what our style of play will look like with this group, what formation will work best for us.
“Getting back to the Final Four is not something we’ve harped on with them. It has to happen organically and we have to put the pieces in place to get back there, just like we have to do every year.”