Juan Leal had the pleasure of watching Anya Gulbrandsen work wonders with her football skills over the course of two years in East Oswego practice.
Girls protecting her?
Well, it goes without saying that holding back gifted sophomore midfielder Oswego East can be a little painful at times.
“I saw her break so many ankles this year in practice,” said Leal, Oswego East’s coach. “I feel sorry for our defenders in training. I told them that you have some of the best midfielders. Don’t be upset if Anya or Riley [Gumm] breaks ankles.
The skills of Gulbrandsen and the rest of the young and talented Oswego East players make for a fun time in training. This translated into the best two-year run in program history.
The undefeated 2021 regular season required a historic encore to surpass it this spring, and the Wolves have done just that.
Oswego East went 18-3, won their second consecutive unbeaten Southwest Prairie Conference championship and then went on to win their first ever regional championship.
A 6-0 loss to Naperville North in the group stage semi-finals left a sour taste in Gulbrandsen’s mouth, but failed to mitigate what the Wolves had achieved.
Oswego East dominated their competition, leading the pack by a 78-17 aggregate lead. The Wolves’ only two losses in the regular season were within one goal of the No. 1 seed in the Naperville Central and Lions groups, and they beat another No. 1 St. Charles North in the Naperville Invitational.
Oswego East, playing in the shadow of the Naperville football hearth, has become one of the state’s best teams this spring.
“The season didn’t end the way we wanted it to, I wish it had lasted longer, but it’s great to sit with my teammates and think about how great those moments were,” Gulbrandsen said. “The coach said it was the best squad we had.”
At the center of this talented roster is Gulbrandsen, who scored 17 goals and 10 assists as he finished second at the Oswego East. Gulbrandsen, who played in all conferences and in different sections, as well as the team’s MVP in offense, is the best player of the year according to the newspapers.
“Anna has come in this season and picked up where she left off in the explosive freshman season,” Leal said. “You can tell she worked really hard on what we talked about at the end of last season. She knew what her mission was, her importance, her role in the team, and she took responsibility.”
Even in games where Gulbrandsen only took a few touches, Leal reminded her that she was a dangerous player by her mere presence.
“Her speed, her incredible reading of the game, her ability to attack any ball available, take on any defender, that’s what makes her special,” Leal said. “She is explosive with the ball. It can be said that she grew up with two older brothers. She brings it into practice every day. You will see that at the end of the workout she is just covered in sweat because of how hard she works. I think what made her stand out was her constant thirst for success and her team’s success.”
Athletic ability is in our DNA, and this competitive fire was forged as the youngest of three siblings and the only girl. Gulbrandsen’s father played football, basketball and baseball, as did her two older brothers.
“Living in a sports family, living with two brothers who are four and six years older than you, you have to control yourself,” Gulbrandsen said.
Gulbrandsen continued to train with other talented football players.
“Workouts were a blast,” she said. “The band is not only very talented and competitive, it’s just a fun bunch of people. We could talk trash, compete, fight, and then we could all go out to dinner. This environment was good for our team.”
“It’s just a great group of girls who work well together, chat in training, challenge each other. Anya is coming,” Leal said. “She has a very easy character, she is very modest in her abilities. She fits in perfectly with her personality.”
Leal noted that he has played slightly out of position with Gulbrandsen for the past two years to suit the needs of the team. She is a real central midfielder, but he played away with Gulbrandsen. Her intelligence has allowed her to adapt well to the position, and she seems to fit her. She also moved to her new U16 Eclipse Select club team.
“My play style is much more outward-oriented,” Gulbrandsen said. “My speed becomes a big advantage on the outside.”