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Turnabout is fair play for Loyola vs. Evanston

By Patrick Z. McGavin , 03/29/23, 10:30AM CDT


Ramblers use late goal to tie no. 9 Evanston

By Patrick Z. McGavin

EVANSTON — The natural rules and order rarely apply to a game that is played fast, loose, and often unbound.

All the typical predictors went out the window in the classic North Shore renewal of traditional powers Loyola and Evanston.

On paper, it was seemingly one-sided, featuring an undefeated and ranked Evanston team with multiple players back from a state Final Four side going up against a reconfigured Loyola team still finding its purpose.

Evanston shut out then no. 15 Glenbrook North 1-0 March 22. The Spartans, ranked 23rd this week in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, beat Loyola 4-1 on March 16.

Everything seemed to point favorably in the direction of the Wildkits.

Then Loyola started throwing literal haymakers, with a gorgeous ball from forward Ellie Vehovsky that forced Evanston keeper Ariel Kite to make a sensational leaping stop.

That signaled a different mentality. 

After Loyola’s rocky start to the season, by its glittering standards, the Ramblers came ready to play.

It only got better from there, with both sides doing everything possible to seize control.

The final eight minutes of the match had to be seen to be believed. Evanston scored twice in three minutes and seemed on the verge of another late, heroic win. But the Ramblers made a great, final run to earn a 2-2 tie.

Star defender and returning Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater Emily Pikarski drilled a penalty kick with 0:39 remaining that delivered the remarkable 2-2 draw Monday night before a solid crowd of about 200 spectators.

Loyola forward Ella Couri was fouled inside the box in the 80th minute. 

“Honestly, we practice penalty kicks a lot, and I usually know what I’m doing,” Pikarski said.

“I’m very confident taking those shots, and their keeper, Ariel, I play with her in club, and I kind of know what she’s like. Obviously, it’s nerve wracking, but I go in there knowing what I’m doing.”

The stunning conclusion proved a fitting comeback for the Ramblers (1-2-2), who lost twice to the Wildkits last year.

Those games could not have been more varied. Evanston used an 80th minute goal for the 3-2 victory in a top 10 matchup March 22, 2022.

The Wildkits (3-0-1) drilled Loyola 5-1 in the Class 3 A sectional final at New Trier.

“Every game is very emotional when we play them, and we definitely got some deja vu,” Loyola defender Maria Nikas said.

“It just goes to show that you always have to play until it’s over, because anything can happen. There’s plenty of time left, and you have to go until that final whistle blows.”

The first half was scoreless though hardly without incident. 

The early shot by Vehovsky underscored the sense of purpose and authority in Loyola's play.

Evanston All-Stater Kite had three saves in the first half, the most important and impressive was her sharp left sideways movement to deflect the early shot.

Part of what made the game so awesome was that it came down to “steel on steel.” The best example came when Evanston star forward Jocelyn Leigh broke free of a counter and confronted Pikarski, Loyola’s best defender.

Pikarski stripped her of the ball in the 12th minute.

Loyola’s early record is deceiving. It features losses to Glenbrook North, no. 11 St. Charles North and a tie with Chicago Public League power Lane.

“I feel like every game is getting better and better, and we’re proving a lot of people wrong,” Nikas said. 

“We came in this year with a newer team, and I think anytime that happens, people are going to underestimate you. We are training hard and working hard every day in practice.”

Kite’s counterpart, Loyola senior Ellie Bradley, was equally impressive in the first half.

She had three saves, including a bang-bang sequence where she cut off the Leigh angle, used her body to stop a shot and then leapt high to snare a follow-up ball by freshman midfielder Bridget Durkin.

Offensively Vehovsky was a revelation, using her size, speed and touch on the ball to create a series of sharp actions in the final third.

Loyola clearly had something to prove.

“We came out way lower in the rankings than what we expected this year,” she said.

“We came out and defied the odds, and showed how we are getting better. That shot I had in the first five minutes just showed how we were going to possess. For the most part, we did that until we had those slip-ups in the last minutes.”

Loyola broke through at the start of the second half, creating a series of cascading and interlocked pressure that yielded several corner kicks.

Defender Ellianna Seeley, the team’s free kick and corner specialist, played a beautiful corner from the left edge,

The Ramblers flooded the mouth of the goal, and Nikas smashed home her second goal of the year.

That was that, and it seemed to augur the perfect map for the road upset. Loyola led for nearly 30 minutes of game time.

Then, as if shot out of a cannon, Evanston awoke.

It was staggering, quick, and seemingly overwhelming.

Baylor recruit and Chicagoland Soccer All-State Watch List member Adriana Merriam scored two goals three minutes apart. The first came in the 72nd minute off a beautiful touch from Leigh.

Merriam blasted home the volley from about 15 yards.

“It felt like the middle was very crossed, something that we experienced when we played Glenbrook North,” Merriam said.

“We were just trying to connect more in general, especially moving forward. There was definitely a greater sense for urgency and focus.”

Leigh earned Chicagoland Soccer All-State recognition after scoring 27 goals and creating eight assists for the 2022 fourth place state finisher.

Merriam had nine goals and two assists. 

Evanston had enough veteran poise and sense of itself not to get unwound or caught off guard.

“Everyone knew that time was running out, and we were still down. We didn’t give up and kept looking to connect and go forward.”

Newly reinvigorated, Merriam was not settled to leave it at that.

Just moments later, defender Molly Riley slotted Merriam a ball on the right wing.

Merriam took a stutter step, creating some separation and drilled a left-footed ball from 19 yards for a spectacular upper 90-degree goal in the 75th minute.

“I don’t think my role has changed,” she said. “Rather, it has become more potent. Last year I was a starter and played a lot of minutes, but I was part of a team that had played together for a while and knew each other.

“This year my role is to go outside the comfort zone and step more into that leadership position. My goal is to play in a way that not only creates goal-scoring opportunities, but also makes the team play better.”

What made the shot all the more remarkable is that at the time that she initiated the shot, Merriam had her back almost completely turned to the goal.

There was the rub, a crazy reversal.

An Evanston team that had been outplayed for the majority of the game was now just minutes away from securing the win.

“At halftime a couple teammates brought up how Loyola created an environment that was meant to stress us out, make us panic with their bench or just their urgency of playing,” Leigh said.

“I’d say Adriana’s first goal shifted the momentum back to us, and gave us more of that concentration and allowed for her second amazing goal.” 

Ellie Vehovsky and Adriana Merriam shared the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match distinction for their outstanding play.

It proved a wild though fitting conclusion, a game with two excellent teams and neither deserving to lose.

“Our response has not always been impeccable with adversity, or after somebody scores on us,” Vehovsky said. 

“It was a win for us.”

Pikarski’s goal was her second of the year.

“Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect going into this losing to them the last couple of games. I think we had the energy, and we dominated from the minute we stepped on the field.

“I think, overall, we had the better game plan, but they also had a couple of good shots at the end. No matter what, we stuck on them.”

Starting lineups

GK: Ellie Bradley
D: Maria Nikas
D: Ellianna Seeley
D: Emily Pikarski
D: Sadie Merriott
MF: Emma Shaffer
MF: Claire Brady
MF: Grace Lynch
F: Emily Plovanich
F: Ella Couri
F: Ellie Vehovsky

GK: Ariel Kite
D: Molly Riley
D: Jordin Kadiri
D: Anna Bergmann
D: Madeline Ball
MF: Madeline Varela
MF: Adriana Merriam
MF: Mia Darer
MF: Shayna Da Silva
F; Sydney Ross
F: Jocelyn Leigh

Chicagoland Soccer MVPs of the Match: Ellie Vehovsky, jr., F, Loyola; Adriana Merriam, sr., MF, Evanston

Scoring summary

First half
No scoring

Second half
Loyola—Maria Nikas (Ellianna Seeley), 43rd minute
Evanston—Adriana Merriam (Jocelyn Leigh), 72nd minute
Evanston—Merriam (Molly Riley), 75th minute
Loyola—Emily Pikarski (penalty kick), 80th minute