Don’t hold your breath if you’re a high school soccer fan waiting for Evanston to finally have to endure a “rebuilding” season.
The Wildkits have reached the Illinois High School Association sectional tournament championship game for six straight years and, despite the graduation of 13 seniors, head coach Franz Calixte is convinced that the current squad is poised to make another deep postseason run.
A culture of soccer success created back when Calixte was a Hall of Fame player at ETHS in the 1980s continues to thrive and the Kits are a senior-heavy squad again this fall. Only approximately half of the 18 seniors on the roster played major roles for last year’s 17-6-2 squad that bowed 2-1 to Saint Patrick in overtime in the sectional title game, but it’s a class that might rank with the best Calixte has ever coached.
The ETHS program is unique year after year because players who don’t even make the varsity roster as juniors still persevere and become impact players as seniors. Calixte expects that trend to continue.
“We have a couple of assistant coaches (Fernando Ferrer, Jeremy Rielley) on our staff who didn’t play on the varsity as juniors and got to the state championship game as seniors,” Calixte pointed out. “Sometimes it’s tough for juniors to understand that if they’re not outright better than the seniors, then our loyalty (as a coaching staff) will be to the seniors first.
“But if you’re playing JV (junior varsity) here, it might not be something you want at first — but it’s not a dead end for your career, either. Last year we brought two JV players up at the end of the year (defenders Morais Lee and Frank Berkely) and they both played good minutes for us.
“So many of the seniors didn’t make the varsity last year because we were so deep, and in terms of depth this year it’s one of the strongest classes we’ve had here. The seniors only lost 2 or 3 games as freshmen, they were undefeated as sophomores (with one tie), and last year with 8 or 9 of them on the varsity, the JV team went undefeated. So that’s two unbeaten seasons for that class in the last three years.”
ETHS fans will see some familiar faces in the starting lineup when the Kits play their season opener at home Monday night against Hoffman Estates as part of the annual Central Suburban League/Mid-Suburban League Challenge. They’ll travel to Waukegan on Thursday before hosting a four-team round-robin tournament next week at Lazier Field.
Returning center midfielder Quinn Ackman is the guy tasked with making sure that the Wildkits don’t rebuild — just reload — this fall. A three-year varsity performer, Ackman was selected all-conference as a junior and his steady if unspectacular play is critical for a philosophy that favors strong possession and has been a key ingredient to Evanston’s success.
Expected to join Ackman in the opening night lineup are returning starters Dylan Kimball, Eric Cyiza, Matthew Webley, Nick James and Baruani Kamangila.
Ackman, the son of a soccer coach, played on the sophomore team as a freshman and then moved up to the varsity ranks. “He was fully developed as a player a lot earlier than some are,” said Calixte. “He’s such a steady player, a guy who knows how to win balls, how to keep balls (possession), and knows when it’s time for him to attack, too.
“He controls the tempo for us and decides whether to go deep with the ball, or keep possession. He’s the glue that holds us together.”
James, Berkely and Teo Cook figure to earn most of the playing time early on for the defense unit, with Ackman, Cyiza and Kimball manning the midfield. Webley, a speedster who is just as fast with the ball as without it, missed much of last year due to injuries but can be a force at forward along with senior Dylan Taglang.
Lee excelled at center back when he was promoted to help the varsity the second half of the 2018 season, but will likely return to the forward slot, where he led the JV team in scoring.
Evanston never did have a set rotation last fall due to so much depth and some injuries — and Calixte doesn’t mind not having a set lineup if that’s the way the 2019 campaign shapes up.
He’s also expecting contributions from seniors Christian Calian and Adrian Morales, with senior Daniel Linder — the JV keeper last year — earning the early edge over classmate Hector Mendoza in goal.
“We have 9 forwards on the roster, and that’s a lot,” the coach noted. “We like having that much competition in practice every day and like we did last year, we’ll have the hottest lineup on the field to start the game. The way that works, there’s no complacency. Guys can’t get comfortable just because they think they’re starters. We started doing that the last couple of years and it’s worked out well for us.”
Kamangila has shown in the early going that he has the potential for a breakout year as a scoring threat.
“He’s just getting stronger and stronger,” Calixte praised. “He had a good summer tryout last year and that’s what got him on the varsity, and he’s only improved since then. He’s stronger and he’s more comfortable with the ball, his decision making is better, and he’s created opportunities and finishing better, too.”