Championship defenses aren’t built overnight, not even at Evanston Township High School.

The ETHS varsity girls soccer team in 2023. Credit: Evanston Wildkits Girls Soccer Instagram

A defense that is still a work in progress hasn’t kept the Wildkit girls soccer team from posting a near-perfect record so far in 2023 despite the fact that every starter on last year’s team graduated.

The Kits surrendered a pair of goals Saturday but accomplished something last year’s fourth place state finisher couldn’t – a win over Naperville North. Evanston tripped the Huskies 3-2 at Lazier Field Saturday in the opening round of the Lou Malnati’s Deep Dish Classic tournament.

The Wildkits improved their season mark to 5-0-1 and will play another Group B game in the tourney at home on Monday versus Wheaton St. Francis. They’ll conclude group play on Wednesday at Libertyville, with the tourney semifinals and finals set for Thursday and Saturday at New Trier.

Lily Shure scored a pair of goals and freshman Bridget Durkin tallied her first career goal to spark the offense. But ironically, in a sport where scoring is often at a premium, ETHS head coach Stacy Salgado isn’t worried about where the offense is going to come from this season.

The Wildkits were missing one of their leading offensive threats Saturday in junior forward Sydney Ross, who was still absent on a college visit during the ETHS spring break. They still peppered Naperville North freshman goalkeeper Olivia Ochsner with 14 shots on goal and out-possessed the Huskies, who fell to 2-3 on the young season.

Salgado’s had squads in the past that counted on the offense to put enough pressure on foes to help the defensive effort, and this might be one of those years. But on the plus side, the defensive unit in front of returning goalie starter Ariel Kite (5 saves Saturday) – consisting mostly of co-captain Anna Bergmann, Jordin Kadiri, Maddie Ball and Molly Riley – has pitched a couple of shutouts already and the Kits have conceded only five goals in six games to date.

ETHS got a boost Saturday from sophomore Maddie Varela. Varela, who is listed as a forward on the roster, shifted into the middle while replacing Kadiri on defense midway through the first half and played a key role limiting the damage the visitors were able to do on offense.

“We ARE still a work in progress with our defense,” Salgado agreed. “Every game is different, but I feel like we’re on the right path as a team. They’re working better together. We figured out what to do against Naperville and I thought the girls handled it better in the second half.

“We put Maddie [Varela] in because we needed more speed back there against their forwards. We’ve had her in that position before, when Jordin missed a couple of games with a concussion, and that’s an adjustment we had to make today. Maddie was solid in the air for us too.

“We’re looking for defenders who can be leaders and distribute out of the back too. We need them to connect with the midfielders so we can always be attacking as a team. Maddie Ball isn’t really a defender, but she’s quick and skilled in back and she’s calm on the ball and sometimes you need that.”

As in a game right before spring break, a 2-2 tie with Loyola, the Kits had to survive some uncertain defensive play in the final minutes. The Huskies pulled within a goal at 3-2 when Claire DeCook turned the corner in a one-on-one duel with Bergmann and slipped a pass to Annie Chang, who buried the shot in the 74th minute. But Evanston’s Shayna DaSilva blocked a shot that could have been dangerous, and Kite denied Sam Falkman when she broke loose in the final minute of play to preserve the victory.

Naperville North had seized the lead at 1-0 in the eighth minute on a 30-yard scoring run by DeCook. The home team responded 7 minutes later off Adriana Merriam’s corner kick, with Shure picking up her first goal of the day.

Shure scored again on a rebound effort in the 28th minute, and Durkin delivered her first goal when she put back her own missed shot in the 30th minute.

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