Stacy Salgado is entering her third season as the head girls soccer coach at Evanston, but she’s really not that far removed from her own playing career at ETHS.

So with a young influx of talent that includes 6 freshmen and 6 sophomores on the 25-player varsity roster, Salgado remembers what it’s like to have to adjust to a new level of expectations and competition as a varsity player.

The combination of senior leadership — from co-captains/returning starters Hadley Bushala, Keara Kerr, Kat Sehgal and Annika DeStefano — and hungry new players are ingredients that will determine the success of the Kits this spring, starting with Thursday’s 2019 season debut at home against Lakes Community.

Evanston hopes to build on Salgado’s first two season records of 15-6-3 and 14-8-3 and she expects some of the first-year players to make an immediate impact.

Depth will be an issue right from the start because the Wildkits play in two tournaments over the next two weeks, the North Shore Invitational and the Naperville Invitational.

“Having so many freshman up is not something that we’ve planned, even though it’s the best group we’ve had here in awhile,” Salgado said. “I don’t like to pull up freshmen if I don’t see them getting many minutes (playing time) on the varsity.

“But so many of them have the (physical) size and the competitive mentality it takes, and they’re very strong players. They put our previous (returning) players under a lot of pressure in our preseason practices. When I was a freshman, I was very scared because I didn’t want to let the seniors down. That added another level of stress for me, and it’s a difficult experience when you’re put in that position.

“A lot of them came to our camp in the summer, though, and played against the varsity team, so I’m hoping those pieces will help with the transition for them.  We’re trying to make them as comfortable as possible, and I’d like to think if you came to watch one of our practices, you wouldn’t be able to tell any differences in classes.”

Getting everyone on the same page right from the start is important for the Wildkits, especially up against a challenging schedule. That’s where the leadership provided by the co-captains and Kelly Kleschen, the other senior on the varsity roster, can make a difference.

So far, so good.

“As a team overall, they’re already connecting so well,” said the coach. “They showed up self-motivated and ready to go. That’s not a mentality you can coach — it’s just there. The girls we selected as captains all bring different strengths for us, and the team always takes the shape of its leaders.”

Kerr (12 goals) and Bushala (9 goals) are back to lead the offense, but the Wildkits struggled mightily on offense last spring. They were shut out 9 times by their foes and Salgado knows that the offense may have to carry the defense early in the schedule, especially with freshman starters at almost every position on the back line.

“Offensively, I think it comes down to mentality, and the grit wasn’t necessarily there for us last year,” the coach acknowledged. “I’m hoping a couple of girls are more driven to make it happen on offense this year. This is a new season and a new team. We’re not looking back on what happened last year.”

Bushala’s speed and determination up top could lead to a stellar year, perhaps paired with a hungry freshman with a knack for scoring, Brealyn Viamille. Also looking to contribute at forward are juniors Sophia Weglarz and Zoe Salomon, who missed most of the season last year with an ACL injury.

On paper, Evanston’s strength is in the midfield with a veteran group that features solid players at every spot in Kerr, junior Callista O’Connor, DeStefano and Sehgal. Sophomore Ryann Lucas, a rising star, will move up from outside back to a center mid slot after trying it out late last spring.

Lucas’ shift in position was made possible by the depth on the back line, where Salgado is still trying to sort out the right combinations of new players. Sophomore Ruby Rogers is a returning starter and junior Kathryn Petersen also saw action on defense last year, but they’ll have to fight off challenges from freshmen Carly Menocal, Nahlia Dominguez, Sarah Sollinger and Lucinda Lindland for starting jobs.

In goal, the competition continues between sophomore Caitlin Fitzpatrick and junior Sylvi Imrem. Both players missed significant time with injuries last spring but both are 100 percent healthy and enjoyed strong showings in preseason workouts.

Fitzpatrick won the position coming out of preseason last year, only to be sidelined with a broken finger. So far, the competition has been too close for Salgado to call and she’s not certain either player will emerge as No. 1 in that key spot.

“They’re both talented, they’re both driven and they both work hard,” the coach praised. “That will be a difficult decision for us. We could alternate them, as long as doing that doesn’t mess with their confidence. That’s the tricky part because they’ve both been very strong so far in practice.”

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

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