No fan attending Evanston’s regional tournament soccer opener Tuesday at Lazier Field would have recognized a Wildkit girls squad that scored one goal in a five-game stretch earlier in the season.
That was then. This is the second season and the Wildkits hope they’re healthy enough to find the back of the net more often down the stretch, like they did while crushing Lincoln Park 8-0 in the Class 3A Regional tourney at ETHS.
Six different players scored for the winners, who improved to 14-5-3 overall and will meet Elk Grove Village, a 2-1 winner over Lane Tech, in Friday’s championship game set for 6:30 p.m. at ETHS.
Vanessa Eljaiek and Keara Kerr each scored a pair of goals and Wynne Collins and Rachel Krumholz both notched their first career varsity goals for the winners, who functioned better on offense than the quirky stadium clock that froze up on several occasions and left fans in attendance wondering just how much time was actually left in the rout.
Evanston head coach Stacy Salgado was just happy to see her offense clicking after a drought that few Wildkit teams — certainly not one this talented — have experienced.
Injuries sidelined top scorers Eljaiek, Callista O’Connor, Maia Cella and Hadley Bushala at one time or another this spring, and while the Wildkits weren’t looking for excuses because most teams are banged up at this stage of the season, it was still difficult to find consistency on offense during that stretch.
“We had to do a lot of adjusting to find out what combinations we thought would work best,” Salgado said. “They couldn’t even practice together because of the injuries, and it took time and experience for them to learn each others’ moves. It was pretty difficult for us to jell without a full team on the field in games or in practice.
“They never had their heads down during that stretch and it was never a question of effort or heart. It was almost like they were trying TOO hard, instead of keeping things simple. That’s what works best for us as a team. Now, I think everybody is on the same page.”
Eljaiek said she isn’t 100 percent healthy yet after hurting her knee against Hinsdale Central and admitted that “it was pretty frustrating” when the forwards and midfielders weren’t all healthy enough at the same time.
“I think it started when Callista (O’Connor) was hurt after the New Trier game, because she was off to such a great start,” said Eljaiek. “We started losing our connections with the midfielders and we couldn’t get it back. Now that she’s back, even though it’s only been for a couple of days, things are much better.
“I was out sick for a couple of big games against Metea Valley and Warren, and we didn’t have Maia (bad shoulder) against Stevenson. But we were still able to come through against Stevenson (in the regular season finale) and I think we’re over the hump now.
“Today against that low pressure (from Lincoln Park’s defense) we had a lot of room out there, and Maia and I were able to connect a little more on short passes. That definitely helped.”
With a 25 mile-per-hour wind blowing out of the south, the Wildkits pounced on the Lions for three goals with the wind at their backs in the first half, two of them by Eljaiek and one by Kerr, whose goals almost automatically have to have the tag “hustle” attached to them.
Sophomore Krumholz, who made her varsity debut along with classmate Grace Wall, scored one of five second-half goals for the winners. She joined Kerr, Collins, O’Connor and Ruby Siegel as goal scorers and Cella was credited with 4 assists.
Injuries have also affected Evanston’s defensive unit, although the Kits didn’t permit a single shot on goal by the Lions (8-11 record). With starter Abby Osterlund sidelined by a fractured hip, senior Emma Dzwierzynski has made a seamless transition to take her place on the back line along with Avery Ackman, Lauren DeMaria and Siegel.
“Emma has really stepped up and played some strong defense,” Salgado praised. “She’s really fast and she really has good endurance, too. She plays a simple game and that’s what we want out of her.
“We had a solid start to this season and then we went into a little bit of a lull because of the injuries. Now, I think we’re back up there where we should be.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.