When the organizers of the Naperville Invitational girls soccer tournament called Evanston coach Maurizio Grillo about a possible change in the pairings for the 2016 event, Grillo didn’t flinch.

He embraced the challenge of possibly facing two-time defending state champion New Trier a total of three times this spring if the Wildkits shifted to New Trier’s side of the bracket for this year’s tourney.

Grillo believes his squad has the talent to take on the Trevians — ranked No. 1 in the nation in a preseason poll by USA Today — and anyone else on the schedule. The Wildkits open the 2016 season Thursday at Lakes, and will host Mundelein Saturday at noon in their home debut.

Evanston’s postseason path remains as difficult as any, the high school version of a “Group of Death” that includes New Trier, Loyola Academy and Glenbrook South in the sectional tournament. But Grillo and his players are up to that daunting task, especially if they can adopt a more physical style of play to challenge the “big” girls.

“We moved away from the Barrington (site) side of that Naperville tournament, and I don’t mind having to play New Trier more than once,” Grillo said. “I have no problem at all being placed with them. The more you play a team, the more you learn. I think we’re at a point where it’s realistic to put our name out there again back where we belong, in the sectional or supersectional. It’s realistic to think we belong in a top 8 scenario in the state. We’re aiming high.”

To get there, the Wildkits may shift their focus from less finesse to a more physical approach. ETHS practices in the preseason stressed the need to play through the ball more and win more 50-50 balls, and if that means getting more physical, then that’s OK with the head coach.

“More players are being told to go for it by their coaches, and girls soccer is becoming more and more physical,” Grillo said. “We’ve asked our seniors to be rough on the younger kids in practice that way, like it was a game scenario, and we’re getting the best out of our practices because everyone is playing as hard as they can.

“When we play the good teams we have to stop them, we have to be more physical. When we play New Trier they make it a point to try to beat you on every corner kick, and we have to be more physical against that. We’ve always been a more refined team, one that only made contact when necessary, but we’re trying to change that.

“We also need to be stronger mentally and realize we can’t break down mentally, even if the other team scores the first goal.”

That’s what happened last year when Loyola Academy, outplayed for most of the game, scored the first goal of the game on its first opportunity in the sectional semifinal and eventually ended Evanston’s season at 17-6-3. Grillo welcomes back six returning starters from that squad and the program will also receive a boost from three freshmen who figure to challenge for starting jobs — Keara Kerr, Annika DeStefano and Hadley Bushala.

It all starts on defense for any Grillo-coached club and senior veterans Kate Kremin and Julia Kenney will look to continue Evanston’s strong play on the back end, along with senior goalie Sheridan Cleave. The Wildkits have been particularly tough to score on at Lazier Field, having surrendered just 4 goals in the past 2 years on their own turf. Joining Kremin and Kenney at the outside slots on defense are sophomores Avery Ackman and Ruby Siegel, who were key reserves as freshmen.

In the midfield, senior Alex Berkley will return for her fourth year on the varsity and won‘t have any difficulty with a more physical approach. Junior Maia Cella will play next to her after leading ETHS in scoring a year ago with 14 goals and 8 assists. She’s already committed to play college soccer at the University of Wisconsin.

The Kits have plenty of talent up front, too. Sophomore Vanessa Eljaiek made a big impression late last year, senior Kira Favakeh recorded 8 goals as a junior, and Bushala, Niles North transfer Stephanie Millan and Caitlin Dalton, who has shifted from defense to better capitalize on her game-breaking speed, will also be in the starting mix.

Kerr is the younger sister of former ETHS star Maureen Kerr, now playing at Creighton University, and Grillo thinks she’ll make an immediate impact in her first season of high school soccer.

“When I was talking to the players after tryouts, the first words out of my mouth were that I see players and I see starters, not freshmen, juniors or seniors,” Grillo said. “There are times when maybe I put freshmen in there too soon. But I’ll play whoever can get the job done. They have to learn about competition at this level, so why wait? And all three of them deserve to be here.

“Kerr doesn’t play like her sister, not at all, but she’ll run through a wall — take it down — and score for you. I know both Loyola and GBS will both start two freshmen this year. To keep on building and improving, those kids have to be exposed to this level as soon as possible.

“I’ve been impressed by how fast and how relentless they’ve all been so far in practice. Our JV coach, Franz Calixte, told me after a scrimmage we had that it doesn’t end, the varsity girls just keep on running. They are relentless.

“They did a lot of work in the off-season on their own in the weight room and they’re really ready to go. They don’t want to have any regrets in May.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Update 6:18 a.m. 3/18/16: The ETHS girls won their season opener 4-1 Thursday at Lakes Community High School. Alex Berkley, Isabel Hart, Vanessa Eljaiek and Maia Cella scored goals for the Wildkits.

Dennis Mahoney

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

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