Successful soccer players are made in the off-season, and the fact that Evanston’s girls soccer team returns most of its starters from a team that won 15 games last year doesn’t mean any of the Wildkits took anything for granted coming into the 2018 campaign.

Instead, the Wildkits hit the weight room — over and over and over — and built strength and confidence entering Stacy Salgado’s second season as head coach.

Under the watchful eye of junior varsity coach and ex-ETHS player Ashley Meyer, the Kits focused on strength and conditioning workouts in the preseason to prepare for another grueling schedule. Salgado hopes to build on last year’s 15-6-3 overall record and believes her squad can challenge New Trier for the Central Suburban League South division title again this season.

“We actually started that strength and conditioning program a few years ago, but we’ve made it more of a staple now,” Salgado pointed out. “We got the freshmen involved back in September, after summer camp, and Coach Meyer has done a great job running it. Our captains also ran some open gyms in the off-season just to get them to touch the ball some and to have some fun.

“This is a very experienced team with a lot of juniors and seniors coming back. There’s definitely more of a comfort level for me and I think the flow of practice has been more efficient so far. It helps when you have so much experience coming back. They already know what’s expected of them and they’ve all put in a lot of time in the off-season, working to get better.”

Salgado’s squad played its best soccer over the last month of the 2017 season and won a regional title before bowing to Loyola Academy 2-1 in the sectional semifinals. The Wildkits lost 3 starters to graduation, including one of the program’s best all-around players in history in University of Wisconsin recruit Maia Cella, a midfielder. But Salgado sees talent everywhere she looks this spring, with all-sectional choices Vanessa Eljaiek and Ruby Siegel joining all-conference standouts Keara Kerr and Avery Ackman to form a core group that ranks with the best in the state of Illinois.

Evanston fans might not recognize Eljaiek without her brace. As a junior, she scored 8 goals and added 8 assists — second only to Cella on the team scoring list — despite the fact that she was still on the mend from ACL surgery and wore a brace on her knee for support.

Now she’s shed the brace and is ready to do even more damage to opposing defenses.

“I haven’t ever seen Vanessa this strong and this confident before,” said Salgado, who was an assistant coach in the program for 2 years before replacing Maurizio Grillo at the helm. “She looks so strong to me and she has an incredible shot. She’s really a dangerous player.”

Eljaiek, Kerr (8 goals, 4 assists) and junior Hadley Bushala (6 goals, 4 assists) are all legitimate scoring threats and figure to log most of the team’s minutes at forward. “Hadley is someone who put in a lot of work in the off-season, and you can tell she’s excited to be out there,” pointed out Salgado. “She’s our ‘speed’ player and she really knows how to make (offensive) runs.

“You can’t replace a Maia Cella in the midfield, but I’m not worried about that. I think we’re in good hands there. We play best when we work together as a team, and it’s not about just replacing one player.”

Returning starters Kat Seghal and Meg Rogan bring a veteran presence at a position where control of tempo (and ball possession) is so critical, and Callista O’Connor, a sophomore who adds a physical presence, gave the Kits a definite spark over the second half of last season and netted 6 goals and 5 assists when she finally cracked the starting lineup.

“One of the players who has really grown for us over the past couple of years is Meg Rogan,” said Salgado. “She’s more and more confident and she’s become more of a leader. I know they’re really going to mesh well together in the midfield.”

On the back line, familiar faces Ackman and Siegel will anchor a defense that will also probably include junior Annika DeStefano and freshman Ryann Lucas. Salgado is confident that foursome will continue the ETHS tradition for strong defensive play.

“Ryann Lucas is one of the smaller girls on the team, but she doesn’t play small. She’s comfortable playing on the ball and has the ability to work the ball through the center mids and play the way we want to play,” Salgado said. “She comes in with a great fitness level, too.

“Annika gives us good height back there and she’ll win a lot of balls in the air. She has played some center mid and some center back for us, so this is not new for her.”

Another freshman, Caitlin Fitzpatrick, figures to draw the nod as the starting goalkeeper for Tuesday’s home opener against Lakes Community. She’ll be backed up by sophomore Sylvi Imrem.

Evanston’s schedule will take on a different look this spring. The Wildkits dropped out of the PepsiCo Tournament and will instead participate in the North Shore Invitational hosted by New Trier and Loyola over a two-week stretch beginning on April 7. And Salgado’s squad will take a spring break trip to South Carolina with matchups scheduled against Mauldin and Riverside on the Furman University campus.

“I think they’re geared up for the season,” said the head coach. “They’re really connected to each other. I had so much fun playing high school soccer myself and it’s fun to see how much they want to play for the school and for the community.”

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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