After Evanston’s girls soccer team lost four home games in his first year as head coach back in 2013, Maurizio Grillo knew that the Wildkits needed an attitude adjustment, especially when it came to playing at Lazier Field.
Now Evanston’s turf is fiercely guarded and ETHS refuses to lose at home.
The Wildkits continued their impressive play in the friendly confines Thursday night with a 3-0 Central Suburban League crossover victory over Highland Park, behind two goals from sophomore forward Vanessa Eljaiek and one from Kira Favakeh. Now 6-0-3 on the season — 2-0 in league play — Grillo’s team hasn’t allowed a single goal at home in four games to date and has only conceded a total of 4 goals in the past two and a half years at Lazier.
Home field advantage doesn’t usually figure into the outcome of high school soccer games, except in cases where the field is unusually narrow. But under Grillo’s guidance, the Wildkits have created their own advantage — more psychological than physical.
“My first year here, there was no pride in playing with that jersey, playing for your school, playing in that stadium,” Grillo recalled. “To me that was just strikingly annoying, that there was no pride here. I’m just coaching these girls the way I was coached back in Italy, where we were brought up just knowing that nobody wins on our home field.
“It’s a mental thing. Every game is different and we certainly don’t take it for granted. We hit the reset button after that first year and now before each game you’ll hear me ask them if the lights are on — and I mean mentally. They say yes, and I say it’s Showtime! That means that it’s time for them to show off and show other teams how to play soccer. It’s become an expectation for these girls to play well at home.”
Grillo’s 2014 team didn’t allow a single goal in 10 home games that year, and 2-0 losses to state champion New Trier and Loyola Academy marked the only time opponents found the back of the net in seven home games last season.
“I definitely think we have a home field advantage,” said ETHS senior co-captain Alex Berkley. “Other teams know they have to do a lot of running when they come here, because the field is huge, and later in the year — when the weather gets warmer — we’ll get more fans out here, and we love playing in front of them.
“It seems like there’s something extra to play for when you’re playing at home. We’ve built it up so that not many goals are being scored on us, and once we got that streak going, we don’t want it to end. And as a senior I look at the number of home games we have left and think that every one is a chance for us to make a big statement.
“Coach Grillo has a lot of pride in the program and we don’t want to let him down. My sophomore year I think we started taking more pride in representing our school. I think losses are worse when they happen at home — and we don’t plan to lose at home.”
For senior goalie Sheridan Cleave, in her first season as a starter, every home game represents a personal challenge to keep nothing but zeroes on the Guest side of the Lazier Field scoreboard.
“Ever since I came up to the varsity as a sophomore Coach Grillo has always stressed defending our home field,” Cleave said. “Coach (Pam) MacPherson talked about that in volleyball, too. I’ve done most of my goalie training in that (south) goal every day since then and I know about the legacy that (former goalie) Olivia Post built up here. I feel that pressure. We want to keep that legacy going.
“We play with a lot more heart and passion when we’re playing at home, I think. And I’ve seen more girls cry if we lose here than if we lose on the road.”
Grillo’s ability to instill some swagger into the Orange and Blue won’t last beyond this season — except in the minds of the underclassmen who’ll return next year. The head coach announced over spring break that this will be his last year at the helm before he relocates to New York to join his newly-promoted wife in her new job in the health care field.
The Wildkits pounced on Highland Park for two goals in the first 12 minutes on a chilly Thursday night. Favakeh scored in the 7th minute and crisp passing led to another goal by Eljaiek seven minutes later.
Highland Park goalie Maile Lunardi spent most of the rest of the half ranging off the line to cut off passes by the Kits, who weren’t able to put more than a couple of other shots on goals during that stretch.
The offense picked up in the second half, resulting in 7 more saves by Lunardi, but the hosts only found the back of the net once more, when Eljaiek connected in the 47th minute.
“I would have enjoyed a few more goals tonight,” Grillo admitted. “We needed to do a little more connecting our passes in the final one-third of the field. We just need to shake off some of the rust for our forwards, and hope that we keep improving.”
Cleave was credited with 3 saves overall for the winners, who play in the PepsiCo Challenge tournament on Saturday in Schaumburg. Seeded 4th overall, Evanston is matched against Crystal Lake South in the 4:30 p.m. opener.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.