Juan Leal has had the pleasure of watching Anya Gulbrandsen work magic with her soccer skills for two years at Oswego East practice.
The girls defending her?
Well, needless to say containing the gifted Oswego East sophomore midfielder can at times be a little painful.
“I saw her break so many ankles this year at practice,” said Leal, Oswego East’s coach. “I feel bad for our defenders in practice. I told them you have some of the best midfielders around. Don’t feel bad if Anya or Riley [Gumm] breaks your ankles.”
The skills of Gulbrandsen and the rest of Oswego East’s young, talented roster make for some fun times at practice. It’s translated to the best two-year run in program history.
An undefeated 2021 regular season required a history-making encore to top it this spring – and the Wolves did just that.
Oswego East went 18-3, won its second consecutive unbeaten Southwest Prairie Conference championship, and followed it up by winning its first-ever regional championship.
A 6-0 loss to Naperville North in the sectional semifinal left for a sour taste in Gulbrandsen’s mouth, but couldn’t dampen what the Wolves achieved.
Oswego East dominated its competition, outscoring opponents by a cumulative 78-17 margin. The Wolves’ only two regular season losses were by one goal to No. 1 sectional seeds Naperville Central and Lyons, and it beat another No. 1 St. Charles North at the Naperville Invitational.
Oswego East, playing in the shadow of the Naperville soccer hotbed, itself emerged as one of the state’s best teams this spring.
“Season didn’t end how we wanted it to end, would have loved for it to go longer, but it’s really nice to sit with my teammates and think about how amazing the great parts were,” Gulbrandsen said. “Coach said it’s the best roster we had.”
At the center of that talented roster is Gulbrandsen, who scored a team-high 17 goals and tallied 10 assists, second on Oswego East. All-conference and all-sectional, and team MVP on offense, Gulbrandsen is the Record Newspapers Player of the Year.
“Anya came into this season and picked up right where she left off from an explosive freshman season,” Leal said. “You can tell she worked super hard on the things we talked about at the end of last season. She knew what her mission was, her importance, her role on the team and she stepped up to the plate.”
Even in games where Gulbrandsen only got a few touches, Leal reminded her that she was a dangerous player just with her presence.
“Her speed, her incredible read of the game, her ability to attack any ball that is available, to take on any defender is what makes her special,” Leal said. “She is explosive with the ball. You can tell she grew up with two older brothers. She brings it every day in practice. You’ll see at the end of practice, she is just drenched in sweat because of how hard she works. I think that’s whats made her stand out is her continued hunger for success and her team’s success.”
Athletic ability is in the DNA, and that competitive fire was hardened as the youngest of three siblings, and only girl. Gulbrandsen’s dad played football, basketball and baseball, as did her two older brothers.
“Living in a sports family, living with two brothers that are four and six years older than you, you have to hold your own,” Gulbrandsen said.
Gulbrandsen has continued to be pushed at practices with other talented soccer players.
“Practices were a blast,” she said. “Not only is the group very talented and competitive, it’s just a fun group of people. We could be trash talking, competitive, bickering and then we could all go to dinner. That environment was good for our team.”
“They’re just a great group of girls that work well together, trash talking at practice, challenging each other. Anya fits right in,” Leal said. “Her personality is very easy going, she is very humble about her abilities. With her personality she blends right in.”
Leal noted that he’s played Gulbrandsen somewhat out of position the last two years to fit the needs of the team. She’s a true center midfielder, but he’s played Gulbrandsen outside. Her intelligence allowed her to adapt to the position well, and it seems to suit her. She’s also moved to the outside on her new club team, the U16 Eclipse Select.
“My play style is a lot more geared to the outside,” Gulbrandsen said. “My speed becomes more of an asset on the outside.”