The biggest question mark for the Evanston Township High School girls soccer team coming into the season was how they could replace the four starters on defense who graduated from last year’s Final Four team.

Now, nobody’s playing better defense than the Wildkits.

The ETHS varsity girls soccer team won the Class 3A regional championship Friday at the Michelle Obama Athletic Complex in Chicago. The team advances to the sectional semifinals on Tuesday. Credit: ETHSports Twitter

The Kits pitched their fifth straight shutout Friday night and blanked Whitney Young 4-0 in the Class 3A regional tournament championship game held at the Michelle Obama Athletic Complex in Chicago.

Now 19-2-1, Evanston earned the right to advance to the ETHS sectional semifinals on Tuesday. They’ll meet Lane Tech, a 2-1 winner over St. Ignatius, in a 4:30 p.m. contest at Lazier Field. New Trier and Loyola Academy will collide in the other semifinal, with the survivors advancing to next Friday’s title game.

The brand-new defensive unit of Anna Bergmann, Madeline Ball, Jordin Kadiri and Molly Riley, along with returning goalie Ariel Kite, has conceded a total of just 12 goals in 22 games to date. And no opponent has found the back of the net since the Wildkits returned from a late April trip to Iowa for a tournament.

The group has been overshadowed by Evanston’s offensive balance – Jocelyn Leigh, Shayna DaSilva, Syd Ross and Lily Shure each scored goals Friday – but if defense really does win championships, the Wildkits will be a tough “out” in postseason play.

Where’s the plaque?

The Wildkits achieved their ninth Illinois High School Association regional crown in a row with the victory, an accomplishment that might be greeted with a yawn in some years. They didn’t even get to bring the championship plaque home on the bus because it was accidentally locked up in the athletic director’s office at Young.

But winning the regional certainly held a special significance for a player like Bergmann, who barely got on the field last year as a reserve. Now she’s a co-captain and leading the way on and off the field for another ETHS powerhouse squad.

“A lot of us were there when the boys team [the No. 2 seed in the sectional] lost in the regional championship game [to Lane Tech last October], so no, we don’t take winning a regional for granted,” said Bergmann. “That was a real upset. Anything can happen in the playoffs. You just never know.

“We didn’t even get to play the regional final last year [Lincoln Park forfeited to the Kits] and it was hard for me to feel a part of anything because I didn’t play much in the postseason. I didn’t even get into a game until the state finals, and that was only for a couple of minutes. But this year I’m a senior, and I’m a captain, and winning it feels awesome!”

Learning to work together

The new defensive group took time to form into a cohesive unit, backstopped by a goalkeeper (Kite) who might be one of the most underrated players in the state.

“Obviously we were all new on the back line,” recalled Bergmann, “and we had to figure out our spacing and our shifting. Now we’ve learned to work well together, and I think we’re peaking at the right time.

“Having Ariel back there [in goal] is a massive help and we’re all working together well. I think it started when we beat New Trier [3-0 shutout] because it was a big game and we were so focused on defense. Since then, we’ve been really disciplined and organized. The one thing that stands out to me is our work ethic. Molly and Maddie never played outside back before, and for them to step up the way they did has been very impressive.”

Count head coach Stacy Salgado as impressed too.

“Our defense has played really well,” Salgado said. “Ariel has made some really big saves all year. I think it’s experience more than anything else now. They have momentum and they have confidence, and they’re at a point in the season where they really trust in each other. The communication, and the coverage, have been very good. They read plays very well, and now they have the experience to be in the right positions.’

Bergmann and Kite teamed up to preserve that shutout streak Friday with brilliant individual plays.

Bergmann, covering up for a backup defender with about 6 minutes left in the contest, dropped down to break up a serious offensive thrust and the Dolphins never even got a shot off after what started out as a dangerous situation.

Kite? She was only credited with three saves, but included one of her patented, leaping, one-handed knockaways of a shot by Young’s Moira Koleno in the 72nd minute. The Dolphins finished 9-10-2 on the season.

On offense, Shure set up DaSilva for the first score of the game in the 19th minute, a left-footed blast by the senior midfielder into the far right corner of the net. Leigh added her team-high 23rd goal less than 3 minutes later to boost the visitors to a 2-0 halftime advantage.

Ross and Shure scored goals just 6 minutes apart early in the second half to account for the final margin of victory.

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