Evanston and Wheeling could not possibly have outdone the epic battle these two teams had last November in a sectional final.
The names had changed, and so, obviously, had the stakes in Monday's boys soccer contest. But as season openers go, it was a most worthy beginning as both clubs played an entertaining 80 minutes which ended in a 0-0 draw on the turf in Wheeling.
"It was a pretty good game out there, and a very good effort from both sides, don't you think?" asked Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik, who lost several high-level players from his 2013 state runner-up team. The departed included all-area team co-captain Jose Garcia, who helped generate dozens of lasting memories for the program as it advanced all the way to the state title game.
"I thought we had some very good moments tonight, and especially against a very good opponent like Evanston," said Uhrik. "We obviously have a ways to go, but we showed some promise tonight, and it was fun to watch the two teams go at each other and play some very good soccer."
The reigning champions from their respective leagues continued where they left off last season when Wheeling held on to defeat the Wildkits in dramatic fashion 2-1 before a packed house at Lazier Field to earn a date against Barrington in the supersectional.
On Monday night, the Wildkits' stout back line led by captain Bret Lowry found itself defending perhaps a little more than it would have liked in the first quarter-hour. The visitors got themselves into the game by playing more possession than the home side, while keeping the ball on the floor in its attack.
"It's our defense which will be our strength, and even though Wheeling doesn't have a superb talent like Jose Garcia back this year, they still have some quality players, including No. 10 (Frankie Estrada) who was a very good player in his own right against us in that sectional final," said Evanston coach, Franz Calixte, who is in his 16th year in charge of the program.
The sophomore duo of Jonathan Sanchez and Christopher Aguirre, who will run the Wheeling attack, did well in the opening stages directing things from the middle of the park. But it was Estrada, a senior, who was the most dangerous player in the final third for most of the night.
"There's just a few of us back from last year's team, so it will be our job to be strong team leaders while helping show the way for the new players that we have," said Estrada.
Another returning standout, Francisco Arellano, who along with veteran Fabian Acosta will help keep the Wheeling back line organized in front of newcomer Jose Castillo, were strong throughout. They helped prevent Evanston from getting anything serious on frame during the first half.
Both Castillo and his counterpart on the other end, Adam Masters, showed some terrific athletic ability to help keep the match goal-less, with Masters making the first big stop of the night at 46 minutes when he turned around Fernie Martinez' blast at the near post.
Castillo went airborne to push a well-aimed drive up and over the bar from Christian Rodriguez 10 minutes later. Shortly after, at the end of a fast-paced end-to-end sequence, Lowery took one off the line off the shooting boot of Estrada.
With both sides searching for the first goal of the game, the urgency during the final 15 minutes showed with a little bit of ragged play as fatigue began to set in. Those late skirmishes also offered up some of the best chances on frame, including one in the 71st minute, when an superb early ball from Estrada put Allen Mancilla in.
Mancilla's subsequent strike went just over.
"I was a little apprehensive and nervous coming into this game because of all the new faces we have," said Uhrik. "But I thought everyone who played had a good showing, and now we move forward in a very busy first two weeks of the season."