Denied a chance to reach the Final Four two years in a row, Evanston’s boys soccer team is poised to take the next step.

An appearance in the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state finals is the goal — and a realistic one — for a talent-laden Wildkit team that opens the 2017 season at home on Tuesday at 7 p.m. against defending state runnerup Barrington.

Barrington is the team that eliminated ETHS 2-1 in two overtimes at the supersectional last year and the Kits will be seeking an unprecedented third straight trip to the Elite Eight this fall under head coach Franz Calixte.

Evanston went 19-2-4 in what was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year and posted a 21-2-3 record the year before that.

Calixte believes this team is even better.

“Those last two years, at the beginning of the season our goal wasn’t winning the state championship. We didn’t start talking about the state tournament until we got into the season,” Calixte said. “Now, that conversation has already started. We want to win State. We want more.

“This team is full of talented players. We do have some questions on defense — how will we react with new guys back there? — but this team really reminds of the team that finished second in the State (in 2002). And they love to work hard. We’ve worked even harder in the preseason this year with our drills, and every time we finish a drill, they all start saying ‘just one more’! They’re all in.”

Calixte and his coaching job did a masterful job last fall with 18 new faces on the varsity roster. Now, most of those players are back and more motivated than ever.

“We have a lot of guys who got great experience last year, and they got a taste of success,” the coach pointed out.  “We’ve been built around our defense in the past, but this year I think we’ll be built around our defense, so that’s a change for us.  We return most of our top scorers, and I think our focus will be on scoring goals this year. The year we finished second in the state we had maybe 8 shutouts, but we won a lot of games 4-2 and 5-1 and 3-0. That’s the way it might go this year, too.”

How offensive minded have the Kits been in the preseason? In last Saturday’s Orange and Blue intra-squad scrimmage, the varsity netted 6 goals against the junior varsity team — in one half — and 6 more against the sophomores in the second half. That’s an entire month’s production for most high school squads.

You can’t be a state contender without a strong midfield and seniors Isaac Diop, Aidan Tobin, Miguel Jimenez and junior Nduwayezu Nkurunziza will help Evanston check off that box. Jimenez is one of the most creative and explosive midfielders in the state of Illinois. He led ETHS with 14 goals as a junior, including the only score in that loss to Barrington.

“Miggy’s speed, and his shot, are what stand out to me,” Calixte praised. “He can shoot and score from 40 yards out, like he did against Barrington. That wasn’t the only time he did that last year. He’s thick and strong, and every time I drive by the high school I see him out there training.

“Isaac has been bothered by injuries the past two years, but now he’s ready to go. We’ve always known he was a good one, and now he’ll get a chance to show it.”

Another midfielder to watch is senior Efrain Velazquez Barrera, who might be the most improved player on the squad. “We’ll see what happens in the games, but so far he’s playing like he belongs out there,” said Calixte. “He’s been consistent and he plays so composed.”

At forward, the Kits can count on returning starters Colin Thompson and Tyler Tomasello. Thompson’s progress was slowed by a broken wrist at mid-season last year, but he’s poised to break out and rates as one of the fastest players on the North Shore.

“It’s not often I’ll say this about any player, but when Colin dribbles at you with speed, I don’t know how you stop him,” said Calixte. “He was our leading scorer when he got hurt last year and I expect big things from him this year.”

Added offensive punch will come from senior Nate Pollack, who played academy (club) soccer the past two years before deciding to rejoin the high school ranks for his final season. “He’ll create havoc for us,” Calixte predicted.

Senior goalie Gavin Rosengarten will be backed up by juniors Elliot Hansen and last year’s postseason hero, junior Ramin Abraham. The only familiar faces returning to the defensive corps are seniors Niko Kapetan and Alejandro Coronel, who logged plenty of minutes but can’t really be considered returning starters.

New center backs figure to be Reed Hurtig, a junior who came up to the varsity for the postseason last year, and Ben Sollinger, another junior. Versatile Jacob Marks also should see plenty of playing time.

“Gavin looks really good in goal so far, but in a way I guess our defense is a concern,” the coach admitted. “We have to play straight up and establish ourselves early in the year. We just have to worry about what we’re doing, not who were playing against.

“If we don’t win the conference (Central Suburban League South division) this year, it’ll be a disappointment. Unless we don’t win the conference and we still get Downstate, of course, like we did in 2002.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

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

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