The ultimate team sport demanded an ultimate team effort from Evanston’s soccer team Wednesday night at the Class 3A New Trier Sectional tournament — all the way down to the student manager.
And that’s just what the Wildkits got as they advanced to the sectional championship game for the fifth year in a row with a 3-2 triumph over host New Trier in Northfield.
Coach Franz Calixte’s squad turned the tables on the rival Trevians, who won the regular season contest 1-0, and advanced to the title game against top-seeded Glenbrook North, a 2-0 winner over Leyden in the other semifinal. ETHS will take a 14-4-4 overall record into the 3 p.m. championship game, with the winner moving on to the Elite Eight.
Goalie Gavin Rosengarten recorded 10 saves — including two in the final frantic 20 seconds of regulation play — and the Kits also counted goals from a couple of unexpected sources, sophomore midfielder Quinn Ackman and senior midfielder Johnny Trujillo.
The Wildkits had to restructure their defense with late season injuries to Reed Hurtig and Ben Sollinger disrupting a unit that was shaky enough at times during the regular season when they were on the field. So Calixte dug deeper into his bench, shifted some players around, and the Wildkits made it work for their biggest win of the season.
You also have to credit student manager Grace Thornton with an assist. She’s the one who picked goalie Rosengarten up in time to make the team bus after the senior standout took an afternoon nap and his alarm didn’t go off.
“I was up late doing homework and my alarm didn’t go off,” Rosengarten confessed. “But Grace came and picked me up so I wasn’t late.
“Even though he didn’t start, we were so glad to have Ben (Sollinger) back tonight. Coach moved Isaac (Diop) to center back from the midfield, and he played so well. The same with Jake Marks. Everyone contributed tonight.
“After losing to New Trier during the season, it was nice to be able to pay them back. But it’s not so much about knocking them out of the tournament — I know from last year that’s not fun — it’s really more about us and moving forward.”
Calixte and his staff recognized that the Wildkits couldn’t continually stay in attack mode against the talented Trevians, who bowed out with a sterling 19-4 won-loss record. So they adopted more of a defensive mindset, and executed the game plan perfectly despite surrendering goals by New Trier’s Ryan Krueger in the first half and Will Felitto in the second half.
New Trier had the advantage of too many restarts to count, as a look at the game film will likely reveal that the losers had an advantage of more than 20 to 1 foul calls whenever the referee’s whistle blew.
“We overcame a lot tonight!” exclaimed a jubilant Calixte. “They really stuck to the game plan and played with great discipline in this game. We’ve had lapses in games all season and it was good to see their playoff minds tonight against a very talented New Trier team. This has to be one of the better sectional wins we’ve ever had.
“It was just a great team victory. We felt coming in that all of the pressure was on New Trier because they beat us before, they were playing at home and they were the higher seed. So all we had to do was sit back a little more on defense. I just love when the players show their soccer IQ like they did tonight. We had to stay back and clog up some areas. They knew the plan, and they stuck to it.”
The bend-but-don’t-break defense got a boost when Sollinger, who suffered a broken wrist three weeks ago, got the doctor’s OK Monday to return to action. He played at least half the contest and earned an assist on what turned out to be a game-winning goal by Trujillo in the 56th minute.
“I know for sure that we don’t win this game if we don’t have Ben back,” praised Calixte. “Diop played his heart out back there, too, and Niko Kapetan also played a phenomenal game on defense.”
ETHS struck first, just 6 minutes into the game, when Nate Pollack hustled his way to a score. Inserted when started Colin Thompson tweaked his ankle, Pollack broke through all alone while New Trier goalkeeper Sam Rutherford grabbed a ball bouncing in the box.
Rutherford tried to boot the ball away, but instead Pollack charged in and the kick rebounded off his leg and into the back of the net.
New Trier tied the contest three minutes later, but Ackman’s first goal of the season — a line drive laser from about the 30-yard line — gave the Kits a 2-1 halftime advantage.
A scoring chance created by Sollinger resulted in a goal by Trujillo — only his second of the season — with 24:10 remaining.
“He’s only 5-foot-5, but Johnny’s nickname is Size 12 because he plays so big,” said Calixte. “We changed the lineup and put him in there because he’s more of a defensive player, but he got us a big goal tonight. He was really feeling it tonight. His aggressiveness was just great.”
“It could have been all over for us today (with a loss), and we tried our hardest not to let that happen,” Trujillo added. “I’ll always go all out when I’m out there. This was an opportunity for me and it was really hard for me to counter-attack (against New Trier’s size), because I’m not the fastest or strongest guy out there. I just tried my best.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.