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If Evanston soccer coach Franz Calixte wants to build on the unprecedented success the program has enjoyed over the past three seasons, maybe he should schedule a family reunion of some sort.

As the leader of the program that has captured three consecutive Illinois High School Association sectional tournament championships — a feat never before accomplished at ETHS — Calixte has constantly stressed the theme of “family” while building a winning culture with a diverse group of athletes.

Now that family may need time to regroup after the juniors from an unbeaten sophomore squad and the returning seniors from a 15-5-4 team last fall went their separate ways during the club season.

By Calixte’s count, the “ETHS family” played for four different club teams and while the veteran coach can appreciate the expanded opportunities that gave all of his players to compete at a high level, he’s also concerned that in a sport where chemistry on the field and off is so critical, the Wildkits may now require more time to get on the same page as a team.

Of course, no opponent is feeling sorry for Calixte after his teams posted a 55-9-11 overall record while reaching the Elite Eight for three straight seasons.

“We’ve had a good run and I’d really love to keep it going,” said Calixte, whose team opens the 2018 campaign Monday at 7 p.m. against Fremd at Lazier Field. “But this team was so splintered in the off-season that right now they have no familiarity with each other. I think we’re losing sight a little bit when it comes to how important it is to have a community-based (feeder) team.

“I think we’ll be alright. But we have such a diverse group of Caribbean, Latino, European, American and Central African kids and I think only 3 of them per team played together during the club season. We’re always preaching about how our program is a family and now we need to come together and go through some growing pains because they just haven’t played together enough. Right now our problem is that no one understands their roles yet. We have to define our identity as a team.”

Chemistry could play a more significant role when you consider that the Wildkits graduated their top 3 goal scorers from a year ago (Nate Pollack, Miggy Jimenez, Colin Thompson) and that lack of familiarity often surfaces when players haven’t yet built trust in their teammates, enough trust to string together passes that lead to the back of the net.

Senior midfielder Ndu Nkurunziza, a 3-year starter, and senior defenders Ben Sollinger and  Reed Hurtig are the only returning starters from last year’s squad, which lost to Libertyville 3-0 at the Barrington Supersectional. Junior Quinn Ackman earned significant playing time over the last 3 weeks of the season when Hurtig was out with a concussion.

“I think I counted and we only have about 11 goals returning,” Calixte pointed out. “But we have a couple of juniors in Matthew Webley and Dylan Kimball who are part of a really solid class. Without a doubt that was one of the best sophomore teams (15-0-1, with the lone tie coming versus Maine South) we’ve ever had and I made a point of trying to keep them together as a class.

“Kimball has a high soccer IQ. He’s fast and he’s strong and he reads the game well. I could see him contributing a lot by midway through the season, and he’ll definitely push the guys ahead of him.

“Webley scored 4 goals in the 5 games he played on the varsity last year and he’s the real deal. He’ll be fun to watch (after transferring back home from Lake Forest Academy last fall). I could see him scoring 15-18 goals for us this year. He has a nose for the goal — that’s his art.”

Sollinger, an all-Central Suburban League South division selection, is back to anchor the back line along with Hurtig. The defensive unit for the season opener will also include senior Abraham Abraham and Luke Agnew, a senior who has rejoined the program after spending the past two seasons at a prep school in Minnesota.

“I think Ben Sollinger will be one of the more dominating players on defense in the state this year,” praised Calixte. “His work rate is really unmatched, and his soccer IQ from that left fullback position is at a Division I (college) level. He’s very, very good.”

In goal, seniors Ramin Abraham and Elliot Hansen are battling for the starting job, with Abraham earning the start for the season opener. Ackman, Nkurunziza and senior Nick Marcotte are slated for midfield duty and candidates for playing time at forward include Webley, Kimball, senior Noah Greenberg, senior Will Weinman and the most improved player in training camp, junior Baruani Kamangila.

“Just like every year for us, the regular season is for improving and preparing for the state playoffs,” said Calixte. “That’s a mentality that has been successful for us over the years. It’s a challenge — but the puzzle doesn’t need to go together perfectly until the playoffs.”

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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