NORTHFIELD — The game cuts between the ephemeral and the concrete.
Adriana Merriam is the kind of nervy, industrious and dynamic talent who literally creates something out of nothing.
Shots and sparks fly off of the Evanston midfielder. When she has to make a quick decision, invariably her choice is smart, fresh and destabilizing for the opposition.
“We practice a lot on set pieces,” she said. “Every time I step up, I think about how I have to make something out of this, because we work on it so much. We are expecting ourselves to do something here.”
Merriam scored two goals and set up another with a free kick as the Wildkits, ranked seventh in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25, smashed past no. 23 Stevenson 4-0 in the semifinals of the Lou Malnati’s Deep Dish Classic on Thursday.
By winning its fifth-straight game, Evanston (8-0-1) advanced to the championship game against no. 3 Lyons, who defeated host and fifth-ranked New Trier 1-0 in the second semifinal.
The summer-like weather was radiant and bright, functioning as a kind of coronation for Merriam, who earned the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match honor for her wizardry and brilliance.
She was her own light. It was a gorgeous sight, except for the Patriots (5-4-0).
“I am just super excited about the possibility of playing in a championship game,” Merriam said. “Given the opportunity to win a title is just super fun and exciting, and I can’t wait to play.”
The semifinal was a rematch. Evanston defeated Stevenson 3-1 on March 20 in its second game of the season/
“We talked today about coming in strong because obviously beating a team twice is very hard,” Wildkits forward Sydney Ross said.
“We knew we had to play strong, with good energy, and we knew we had to finish our chances. We talked before the game about crashing the goal, and we did that.”
Merriam turned the match into her personal masterwork, underscoring her versatility, grace and presence around the ball.
Evanston cruised to the 3-0 halftime lead, while Stevenson reeled from the assaultive barrage. The Patriots earned the Malnati's final four’s wild card bid on the second tiebreaker against Naperville North. Stevenson shut out Grayslake Central and short-handed Lane in group play.
With the teams playing their third game in four days and fourth since the beginning of group play April 8, the grueling format of the tournament took its toll.
“This is an elite tournament, and it’s hard on everybody,” Stevenson’s star midfielder Ellie Egeland said.
“It’s hard on everybody, the constant running in the heat. I think it also got to us. Overall, I think we had a pretty good effort throughout the game, and we kept working.”
Stevenson played much better in the second half, generating multiple corner and free kick attempts.
The deficit simply proved too deep and overwhelming. The Patriots had to chase Evanston pretty much from the start.
Merriam was the showstopper, doing what she wanted on command, utilizing her footwork, ball control and precision game to devastating effect.
Evanston junior forward Jocelyn Leigh, a Loyola recruit and Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater, also played her typical sharp and persuasive game, bending the defense to her will and opening up the middle for Merriam to operate.
Merriam, a Baylor signee, went to work from the start, scoring her first goal on a ninth-minute, 20-yard howitzer. Forward Lily Shure, another rapidly improving talent, played her the ball in space.
Evanston endured the same emotional and physical duress due to the compacted schedule.
It was mind over body, according to Merriam.
“Once the body goes, your mind has to keep up with it,” she said. “If you stay checked in mentally then your body is going to naturally follow.
“That was something that we incorporated into our game really well, and we didn’t give up. We kept pushing no matter how tired we were.”
The psychological consequences of the fast goal were also profound. Playing with the lead is always desirable.
“It was definitely good that we got the early goal,” Merriam said. “We talked about it before the game, and how we were looking to go to the goal, and get that early goal.”
However, Evanston was not content managing the lead.
The Wildkits broke the game open with two goals six-minutes apart midway through the first half. Again, Merriam held the wand.
Launching a free kick from 39 yards, she placed a beautiful ball that Ross leapt for to create the perfect half-volley from seven yards for the 2-0 lead in the 20th minute.
“That was the perfect example of something that we do every day in practice of taking the first shot and then getting the follow-through,” Merriam said.
As the lead swelled, the Evanston attack remained dialed in and unrelenting. Leigh created near constant pressure. Midfielder Bridget Durking smashed a ball from about 19 yards that forced keeper Mandy Meliker to make a great diving stop.
In the 26th minute off a short corner, midfielder Shayna DaSilva played it to the left edge, allowing defender Maddy Ball to launch a looping ball from about 24 yards that curved inside the far post for the stunning 3-0 lead.
“We talked about how important they are, and how we had to really finish our chances on the set pieces,” Ball said.
“It was hot today, and we knew that playing the ball around quickly would tire them out. I think we did a really good job with both our offense and defense at adapting to what the game gave us. We had those set pieces, and we finished them.”
Merriam put the finishing touches on the game with a beautiful final set piece goal in the 48th minute, a crazy, almost-knuckleball shot from 29 yards that handcuffed Meliker.
Stevenson made adjustments during the break to fight back.
“I felt like with the new half, we started off with a little bit of momentum,” Ellie Egeland said.
“We had a good talk at halftime. We gave up some unlucky goals on those set pieces. I thought we had some pretty good chances in the second half.”
The Patriots are solid in the middle with Egeland, Arria Chavez, Hayley Popkey, Sammie Meliker and Sami An.
The corner kicks by Egeland created some sharp moments for the Patriots.
Evanston’s All-State keeper Ariel Kite was up to the challenge with five saves for her fifth shutout.
Another bright moment for Stevenson was the play of freshman defender Anabelle Egeland, the sister of the Maryland recruit.
“It’s cool to be on the field together even though we are on opposite sides of the field,” Anabelle Egeland said.
“I feel like we are on the same wavelength, and I know where she is going to run. I am trying to get it to her for the sake of the team.”
In the 72nd minute, Anabelle Egeland drilled a free kick from the right edge that Kite made a brilliant stop of to preserve the shutout.
“It’s nice to have my sister here for practice, and the corner kicks or free kicks, and I know where the ball is going,” Anabelle Egeland said.
Stevenson will regroup.
“Our conference starts next week, and we are looking to come back and continue to plan out our attack,” Ellie Egeland said.
“We need a little bit of a break, and then hopefully come out on top of our conference.”
GK: Mandy Meliker
D: Bri Welter
D: Hailey Livesay
D: Anabelle Egeland
D: Alexa Karagrannis
MF: Haylie Popkey
MF: Arria Chavez
MF: Sammie Meliker
MF: Sami An
MF: Ellie Egeland
F: Madi Kennedy
GK: Ariel Kite
D: Molly Riley
D: Jordin Kadiri
D: Anna Bergmann
D: Maddy Ball
MF: Madeline Varela
MF: Adriana Merriam
MF: Mia Darer
MF: Shayna Da Silva
F: Lily Shure
F: Jocelyn Leigh
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Adriana Merriam, sr., MF, Evanston
Evanston—Adriana Merriam (Lily Shure), ninth minute
Evanston—Sydney Ross (Merriam), 20th minute
Evanston—Maddy Ball (Shayna Da Silva), 26th minute
Evanston—Merriam (free kick), 48th minute