Evanston’s girls basketball team is poised to make a run at the Final Four this season.

Is that a reasonable goal for a program that has only won 3 sectional championships in school history — in 1991, 2000 and 2013?

Wildkit head coach Brittanny Johnson thinks it is, if her players can adjust from being a good solid program to one with a target on its back.

Johnson knows the 2019-20 squad has experience, size, quickness and shooting ability. It’s the mental aspect of the game that will be a key to powering ETHS to a possible berth in the Illinois High School Association Class 4A state tournament.

Good Evanston teams have been knocked out at the regional and sectional tournament levels for years. That’s something that Johnson is trying to change, and this year she has the weapons to accomplish that goal.

“We’ve always been looked at as a pretty good program, and there are definitely high expectations this year because we have basically everyone coming back (from a 24-8 team that won the Central Suburban League South division championship again),” said Johnson prior to Saturday’s season debut at Milwaukee Academy of Science in Wisconsin.

“But we haven’t won the big game yet. The mental hurdle is something we have to overcome. The last hurdle for us is them (the players) believing they can do it. The biggest thing about this year is that we’re not just underdogs who are pretty good anymore. We’re the team to beat now and we’ll get the best effort from every team we play.

“It took a long time for us to get over that loss to (eventual state champion) Maine West last year in the sectional (in overtime). It took time for the returning kids to process the opportunity they missed, and that will be our driving force all year long. We were a few free throws away from making history.”

The Kits will rely on a senior class that has a chance to create a unique legacy. Only the 1991 squad actually qualified for the state tournament previously, when 8 teams advanced instead of 4 as in 2013.

Evanston did more than just survive an injury-plagued season last year and the bulk of that squad returns. Injuries and illness, however, will keep senior guards Jayla Turchin (13.2 points per game) and Tyler Mayne (team leader in assists and steals) on the sidelines for the first few weeks of the season.

The up side to all those injuries last year is that several players got extended playing time they might not have been able to earn otherwise, and now it would almost be impossible for Johnson to turn in a lineup that doesn’t feature at least 2 players who could be considered returning starters.

All-conference center Ambrea Gentle (11.1 points, 6.6 rebounds) lends size and muscle at 6-foot-2 and last week committed to play her collegiate ball at Southeast Missouri State. Kayla Henning returns at the point guard position, and other seniors of note include 6-foot Kaylen Hall, guard Ariel Logan and newcomer Dayjah Chimielewski, a transfer from Trinity.

Juniors to watch include Rashele “Z” Olantunbosun, Jayiona Cobb and Amari Mays. Lola Lesmond, a 6-footer who decided to remain at ETHS while her older brother transferred out of the boys cage program, heads the sophomore class along with Ellie Oif and  Maggie Farragher. Taija Banks also battled her way to a spot on the varsity roster as a freshman.

Both Turchin and Henning have the extra motivation of trying to land college scholarships after missing big portions of seasons with knee injuries. And Johnson likes the idea of coaching seniors who are hungry.

“Jayla had knee injuries for us at the end of last year and she tried to play through them in the summer,” the coach pointed out. “This is the most committed I’ve ever seen her to being ready to play. Her expectations for herself are very high. She was amazing for us as a junior — in my opinion she was our biggest breakout player last year — and she’s really a force to be reckoned with when she’s healthy.

“Kayla Henning really struggled for us last year, after leading us in scoring as a sophomore, and I see a fire in her that I’ve never seen before. She truly wants to leave a legacy as a player at Evanston and she wants to take this team farther than we’ve ever gone.”

Johnson anticipates bigger roles for Hall, Lesmond and Olantunbosun this time around and says the trio are all “totally different players” after a stretch of workouts in the new fitness center at ETHS.

“As a whole, our weight training center is going to take the athletic program to the next level,” Johnson predicted. “We worked a lot on our strength and conditioning in the preseason. We took the ball out of their hands for 4 weeks, and they could all really see the difference when they got the ball back in their hands. We needed something to give us an edge and I think this is it.

“Kaylen Hall has improved every single day since she transferred here (as a sophomore) and she really looks incredible now. Her basketball IQ is through the roof and she’s our defensive anchor in the paint. Lola was basically a 3-point shooter for us last year, but now she’s quicker and handling the ball better and has shown she can be a great passer, too.

“And Z (Olantunbosun) has always been a volume scorer, and now she’s added quickness. She can do everything you need to do offensively. All 3 of those girls are totally different players this year. I think people will be shocked by how much they’ve improved.”

Evanston’s schedule will include shootout appearances at Fremd (Dec. 7 against Beaver Dam, Wis.) and the Kipp Shootout in Willowbrook (Jan. 20 against Mother McAuley), but the highlight should be consecutive holiday tournaments from Dec. 26 through Jan. 4. The Wildkits return to the Montini Holiday Tournament, then will fly to New Orleans to participate in the National Prep Classic against a field of nationally-ranked teams.

“I promised these seniors I’d do my best to get them a chance to play in an out-of-state tournament,” said Johnson, “and I felt I owed them a chance to play in a national tournament, to see what it looks like at the next level. Both (Chicago) Kenwood and (south suburban) Thornwood have played down there the last couple of years and both coaches spoke highly of how it was run.

“We’re looking forward to playing better at Montini, too. We’ve felt like we underachieved every year we’ve been there, so we want to do better.”

Three of Evanston’s losses last year came against Maine West and Johnson’s philosophy is that the Warriors are still the team to beat in the postseason picture, even though they graduated 3 starters.

“To me, it’s theirs until someone proves otherwise,” she said. “But it’s not often as a coach you have a great senior class like we have this year. It’s great to see how they hold each other accountable and I want to help them all achieve their goals.

“I think we’re in a great position for a really special year.”  

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

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