Lakeville South senior Brianna Stelzer and Eastview junior Mathew Gweh are the Pioneer Press soccer players of the year. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)
One loves to score and create goals. The other takes pleasure in preventing goals.
Eastview’s Mathew Gweh scored 28 goals this season, including a 100-yard dribble drive around three defenders, to help the Lightning to a runner-up finish in the Class AA boys soccer state tournament. "In practice, I can’t get mad at my defense when they can’t stop Mathew," Eastview coach Scott Gustafson said. "Nobody else has a player like him."
Lakeville South’s Brianna Stelzer can score, too, but her forte is stopping the opposition. She anchored a Cougars’ defense that recorded 10 shutouts this season. For their feats, Gweh and Stelzer are the Pioneer Press’ soccer players of the year. Gweh and his family immigrated to Minnesota from his native Liberia in 2005. "I wouldn’t say the soccer was awesome in my country," he said. "We played in bare feet, and we used oranges and grapefruit, anything round, for the ball. I didn’t play organized soccer. We just played for fun."
He admits it was rough adapting to life in the United States. He spoke no English and was teased by other students. "They would call me names," Gweh said. "It was very hurtful. Even though they were saying things to me that were hurtful, I thought they were being nice because they paid attention to me. In Liberia, everyone treats you like brothers and sisters. It has gotten better. I am happy with my English, but I am still working on it. People are also kind to me because they have gotten to know me. I am also happy that I have developed my soccer skills in America."
Gweh played at Como Park his freshman year and helped the Cougars to the St. Paul City Conference title with 22 goals. He decided to transfer to Eastview for academic reasons prior to his sophomore year. He was declared ineligible to play on the varsity squad for that season by the Minnesota State High School League because some members of his family decided to stay at Como Park. He played a handful of junior varsity games his first year at Eastview, but the disparity of talent between him and the others was clearly evident. "It was hard not to play (on the varsity)," Gweh said. "I went out and watched the games and cheered for my school. Knowing I couldn’t help was hard to deal with. But watching the games helped me prepare. I have made sure this season I am making up for lost time."
SCORING OR ASSISTING?
"I enjoy scoring, and I am sure the teammates I have here at Eastview like to score, too. I want them to enjoy scoring as much as I do. When I see them open, I give them the ball so they can score. I like to score, but if I am not in a position to score and one of my teammates is in position, it is my job to get the ball to them. When I don’t (score) a goal in a game, the next practice session, I work really hard. I am a determined player."
TOOLS OF HIS TRADE
Brain: "I focus on the game so much before it starts that I drive myself to a high level of being nervous. I am careful not to overlook the other team. I think about what I have to do and wonder who will challenge me in the game. My goal is that I want to be the best on the field."
Eyes: "My ability to see the field is getting much better. When I first started playing this game, it was not very strong. I would look at my feet sometimes or down at the ground. It might be considered a downfall that I don’t see the whole field better, but I am working hard on that."
Mouth: "I like to give directions and help those players I am playing with, especially at my school now. I have great teammates and we work together so well, and we communicate the right things and the right way."
Legs and feet: "I am right-footed. I am working hard on my left. I am fast; not too fast, but I can move up and down (the field) pretty well. I love to possess the ball. The more we possess the ball, the more the defense is having to work and look over their shoulder. I love to get the ball up the field. If I get the chance to score, I like to finish that chance. If I can go around players, take a shot and I miss, I feel really bad about that. It’s a chance you have to take."
Gweh’s high school eligibility will end after this school year. Though he will be a senior at Eastview next year, he won’t be eligible to play soccer or any other sports because he plans to be enrolled in the elite Minnesota Thunder Academy, a soccer program similar to junior hockey. The academy season begins in September and runs through next July. The team will play other academies throughout the country. "Knowing this was going to be my last year of high school soccer, I wanted to show what I could do," Gweh said. "I also want to leave a memory with people on what I will be working on next year. "At this point, I am not wishing to be a professional player. I just want to fight my way to a Division I school to continue my education and to get an opportunity to play soccer at the highest college level. If I can do well at that level, maybe a professional career will come into the picture."
Eastview coach Scott Gustafson is convinced Gweh can succeed at the next level or two. "Once he learns how to play with players who are just as good as him, and he can continue to develop, he can play professionally," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Assists this season
Winless streak in years against Apple Valley, snapped this season
Goals this season
His height in inches
His weight in pounds
She arrived as a shy freshman from Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Her nervousness grew when her mother, Lynn, called Lakeville South coach Dan Flood to inquire about varsity tryouts. "How would I fit in, would anyone like me?" were questions Brianna asked. "As a freshman, you don’t know anything or anyone," she said. "I was coming onto a team that had some seniors and upperclassmen that really meshed well." The then-14-year-old left any shyness on the sideline. "My first impression: ’Wow, can she ever play,’ " Flood said. "She was tough, she didn’t back down from anything, and she had a great skill set. Clearly, she was one heck of a talent. She was going to make our varsity squad as a freshman, no doubt about it." Stelzer was a starter since Day 1 of her varsity career, joining former Cougars stars Kelsey Bertamus and Kelsey Hans as the only three players at Lakeville South to accomplish that feat. She proved her toughness when, as a freshman, she unknowingly played on a broken ankle for 60 minutes in a state quarterfinal game against Eastview.
"I didn’t know until later," she said. "I’m a physical player and had to tough it out. It’s all I know." Stelzer, who missed all of her junior year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, was more involved with the offensive game this season. She was given the green light to shoot and responded with a career-best 17 goals. She also had eight assists.
LONE STAR SOCCER
Stelzer came to Minnesota with an impressive soccer resume. In Texas, she played with the Eclipse Soccer Club, a top-tier program that is a feeder to the Dynamo Academy, a division of the Houston Dynamo of top-level Major League Soccer. "I’m not going to downgrade Minnesota soccer, but in Texas, every club is amazing," she said. "All of the clubs play at a really high level."
Stelzer said her style of play in Texas was faster and more physical than what she initially encountered in Minnesota. "I had to adapt my game a bit," she said. "For the most part, though, I just played like I was in Texas. I think I maybe surprised some people."
TOOLS OF HER TRADE
Brain: "I have a mind-over-matter kind of thing going. In my freshman year, I played on a broken ankle. In that case, I focused beyond the injury. In practice and games, I really zone in on the game."
Eyes: "Before I get the ball, I take a quick look over the field to see what’s happening. That way, when I call for the ball, I’m able to distribute it in the right places. I can read things pretty quickly and then react in the best way possible."
Mouth: "I mostly lead by example. But I’m in a comfortable spot with my teammates, and I think they will listen to me when I give some help and directions."
Legs and feet: "I’m right-footed but can kick with either foot. I’m still working on my left to get it as strong as the right. I think I’m pretty quick. I like the one-touch pass to take advantage of the quickness."
Stelzer made an oral commitment last December to attend Wisconsin. "When I first went there, I was so overwhelmed," she said. "There was a football game that night, and there were so many people. I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to stay. My mom convinced me to stay for my visit. The next day, I fell in love with the school. As soon as I made the decision to go there, there was no more stress." Flood is convinced good things are in store for Stelzer at the collegiate level. "I think she’ll excel at Madison," he said. "She’ll have a chance to start as a freshman. She’s got the tools, the physical presence, and is just going to get better."
BY THE NUMBERS
Game goal-scoring streak last season
Goals off headers
Goals this season
A.J. Albers, Eagan, F, sr.
RJ Alowonle, Park, F, sr.
Ben Bakke, Minnehaha Academy, MF, jr.
Erick Bloom, Centennial, F, sr.
Mike Bonderud, Eastview, D, jr.
Tyler David, Lakeville North, MF, sr.
Sam Forsgren, St. Paul Academy, MF, soph.
Jon Goetz, St. Paul Central, MF, sr.
Ryan Herold, Totino-Grace, MF, jr.
Connor Revsbeck, Lakeville North, GK, sr.
Sam Ruelas, Eastview, GK, jr.
Ben Sampson, Woodbury, Dr, sr.
Miles Stockman-Willis, Hill-Murray, F, sr.
Getenet Tuji, St. Paul Central, F, jr.
Taylor Brownrigg, Lakeville North, MF, sr.
Molly Fiedler, St. Paul Academy, F, fresh.
Danika Gieske, Centennial, D, sr.
Sydney Knutson, Simley, MF, sr.
Simone Kolander, Lakeville North, F, jr.
Anastasia Medellin, East Ridge, MF, sr.
Lauren Nash, Woodbury, MF, sr.
Madison Nelson, Woodbury, F, sr.
Jill Richgels, Simley, F, sr.
Jenna Roering, Centennial, F, jr.
Madeline Trebesch, Woodbury, D, sr.
THE MATHEW GWEH FILE
Family: Grandmother, Nuah Kruah
Favorite class: Math
College choice: Undecided
College major: Undecided
Legacy: "I want to be remembered as someone who was a good student and a good person. People will remember me as quiet, too."
THE BRIANNA STELZER FILE
Family: Parents, Jeff and Lynn; brothers Blake (15), Zachary (12)
School: Lakeville South
Year: Senior GPA: 3.97
Favorite classes: Sports medicine, economics
College choice: Wisconsin
College major: Physical therapy
Legacy: "I want people to remember me as a person they looked up to and a person who inspired them to always do their best and work their hardest, no matter what. And then, of course, I know they will always remember me as the girl from Texas."