Once Evanston’s girls water polo team tied the Illinois state single season record for shutouts two weeks ago, it wasn’t a given that the record was going to fall.
“I told the girls that it was starting to become a monkey on our backs,” admitted ETHS head coach Andy Miner. “Deerfield scored on just with a minute and 20 left when we had them shut out, and we had a couple of opportunities that got away from us, too.”
But the Wildkits put up another zero Saturday on their way to the championship at the Palatine Invitational tournament and broke the record of 4 set by St. Ignatius back in 2012.
A 2-0 blanking of Conant in the final pool play game helped the Wildkits advance to the title contest, where they edged Palatine 2-1 and almost posted another shutout before the host team scored with 1:40 remaining.
Now 16-4 overall, the Wildkits claimed the tourney title behind the Most Valuable Player performance of senior goalkeeper Olivia Everhart. Already established as one of the top netminders in the state, Everhart recorded 36 steals and 8 steals in four games, and even scored a goal herself as Evanston defeated Lincoln-Way East (5-4), St. Charles North (7-3), Conant and Palatine.
Everhart earned a free movie pass from tournament officials for her efforts, and someone ought to make a movie about her and the way ETHS has played impenetrable team defense so far this season.
In a sport where 11-10 scores are common, even at the state finals, teams often have trouble maintaining a defensive focus for four full quarters. Or the typical high school girls team isn’t deep enough or strong enough to play consistent defense when reserves give the starters a rest.
That’s where Evanston has its biggest edge — along with the stellar play of Everhart — according to head coach Andy Miner.
“It started last year in the sectional finals, where we had a couple of girls hurt and we had 3 kickouts (ejections for fouls) against St. Ignatius,” Miner recalled. “I went really deep into our bench and we had girls who just weren’t prepared to play. They hadn’t played in tight games all year, and here they were in the sectional finals.
“So I changed my mindset, and now it’s more fun for the girls and more fun for me. They all get to play and Saturday I subbed 6 girls at a time. Now I look at our bench as a strength. I trust the whole group so much because they ALL know what they’re doing.”
Miner singled out the off-the-bench play of senior Mira Ortegon as significant in helping ETHS limit its last two foes to just one goal in the last 8 quarters of play.
“Top to bottom, I’m really proud of the way the girls played,” the coach said. “The spotlight should be on Mira off the bench, because she played some of the best defense she’s ever played this weekend. She didn’t see the playing time I know she would have liked to see last year, but she’s starting to get it when it comes to making sure you know where the player you’re supposed to be guarding is — and also knowing where the ball is — at the same time. There’s a fundamental way to position yourself to be able to do that, and that’s what helps us focus on teams taking as many outside shots as possible.
“That shutout record is an amazing testament to Olivia and to the team defense around her. We thought if we got the record, it would come in a close game where we had to stay focused and stay alert. We didn't even think about it until the last minute of that Conant game.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the record until after it was over, and then I thought omigosh, we did it!” Everhart said. “I was really happy we got it. I didn’t even know the record existed until a couple of weeks ago and 4 (shutouts) seemed like such a low number. But it’s so tough to shut any team out and it’s so great that we got the record.
“As a team I think we’ve really clicked this year. We’ve done a lot of weight lifting this year to help us stay strong and stand up on defense. And we’re doing swimming drills where we do 5 one-minute swims and try to get the same distance every time, and try to push our limits even farther.
“We don’t have a weak player in our lineup and not many teams can say that. We have girls we can sub in and out who never get tired. Getting the record is great, but winning the tournament is even bigger for us.”
Evanston didn’t dominate the tournament, regardless of the final scores. The Kits trailed Lincoln-Way East all the way through their first pool game, then pulled out a victory on Giselle Figueroa’s goal with 40 seconds remaining in regulation.
Against St. Charles North, it was Everhart’s offense that helped the Wildkits pull away. She broke up a scoreless tie with her own goal from the opposite end of the pool as time ran out in the period. For the tourney she was credited with 4 assists.
“One of our players, Emma Stein, said after the game that Olivia is our last line of defense and our first line of offense, and that’s really true,” Miner praised. “Her passing has really evolved to a whole new level this year, and that was a big goal for us at that point. She really loves to take the last shot in a quarter.”
“I scored a goal last year against Loyola, too,” Everhart added. “It’s always fun when you can score the first goal in a game.”