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Freshman keys Kit girls to regional soccer crown

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Almost none of the players who earned starting roles as freshmen — including her aunt Nancy Economou and mother Kathleen  — have turned out to be only average soccer players in the Evanston Township High School program.

Callista O’Connor is already a special player, and the freshman midfielder continued to make an impact Friday night as the Wildkits captured the Class 3A Evanston Regional championship with a 4-0 triumph over Elk Grove Village.

O’Connor scored a pair of goals — running her total to 3 in just a couple of postseason games in her career so far — and helped the Kits advance to a sectional semifinal date with Loyola Academy on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Glenbrook North Sectional tournament.

Maia Cella and Keara Kerr also found the back of the net Friday at Lazier Field, lifting the Wildkits to an overall record of 15-5-3 and delivering the first regional championship plaque to head coach Stacy Salgado.

It may be premature to speculate whether O’Connor will follow her mother (ETHS Class of 1986) and aunt (Class of 1985) into the Evanston Athletic Hall of Fame one day. Salgado just knew from Day 1 that she was the player the Wildkits needed to fill a vital role in the midfield, despite her youth and inexperience.

“She was definitely on the radar before she got here,” said Salgado, acknowledging the freshman’s special bloodlines. “We knew about her coming into the season, and we lost a couple of midfielders (to graduation), so we were hoping we could count on her to start in the midfield. She’s really stepped up nicely.

“Callista is very versatile and she can play inside or outside (as a midfielder). She has vision that is far beyond her years. She’s such a smart player and she’s way above others her age in that regard. You need someone smart in that role to help dictate play and she’s really filled in well. It took some time to get comfortable playing with the older girls, but she adjusted after a game or two.”

O’Connor set the tone early on offense for the hosts, and knocked No. 10 seed Elk Grove back on its heels and into a defensive mode throughout the rest of the contest.

The freshman couldn’t convert the first couple of chances she had, but broke past the Grenadiers’ defense for a score in the 12th minute to put the Wildkits up 1-0. O’Connor added another goal late in the second half when she banged a shot off the left post, and put her own rebound past Elk Grove keeper Rachel Kandefer.

“We knew we had to stay focused tonight and not underestimate the other team,” O’Connor pointed out. “We struggled with that in a few games earlier this year, and we know that we have to set the tone early on in games and come out mentally strong. Elk Grove’s defense was not very fast, so I tried to take advantage of that working with Maia (Cella) and Keara (Kerr) and Vanessa (Eljaiek).

“Maia has been a really strong role model for me all year and I’ve always looked up to her, in games and in practices. I’ve looked up to the others, too. It was a little bit intimidating at first, not knowing the seniors or juniors at all, and I thought maybe I wasn’t going to fit in. But they took me under their wing and made me feel valued. Now I try to play like they do, and I tried to give everything I had for the seniors because this was their last game at Lazier Field.”

The 5-foot-9 O’Connor is still learning to use her size at a position that can help a team dominate with the right kind of physicality, especially in the postseason.

“The biggest adjustment for me has been the physicality, playing against bigger and stronger girls and learning how to use my body more, to be more aggressive,” she said.  “I’m tall for a freshman, but I’m not tall compared to the older girls I’m playing against. I know I have to be physical to be more effective and not get beat to (50-50) balls.”

“Some of the first touches we had tonight we great, and they really showed our skills,” Salgado added. “I thought V (Eljaiek) was great, so was Maia, and that was one of the best games I’ve ever seen Keara Kerr play. They all did a great job tonight.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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