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Season recap: Oswego East

By Patrick Z. McGavin , 05/25/23, 1:30PM CDT


Erika Smiley saw the crease.

More importantly she saw the player most capable of making something happen in the moment.

Soccer is a game of connections and byplay, weaving variations and actions, direct or indirect. 

The bond between creator and recipient is something to behold, speaking to joy, freedom and purity.

Anya Gulbrandsen was at the other end.

On this late April, Saturday morning consolation match of the Naperville Invitational at Naperville North, Gulbrandsen controlled the cross from Smiley and drilled a short volley past the York keeper.

The early goal set the template for Oswego East’s 2-0 victory.

Gulbrandsen and Smiley have played together for three years. In the future, they will be rivals. The senior Smiley is off to Iowa in the fall. Gulbrandsen, a junior, is set to play at Wisconsin at the conclusion of her prep career.

History shows that the Oswego East is on the upswing. Five years ago, Oswego East lost twice as many games as it won. Now the Wolves have two Big Ten recruits and a new tradition.

In a nutshell that illustrates the new reality of a fast-rising program, and the elite talent that is driving its heightened status and bold new fortunes.

“I am so thankful to be a part of the team that changed Oswego East’s program,” Smiley said. 

“We were told as freshmen to leave the program better than we found it. We definitely did. There was a lot of hard work put in, and I am happy to have helped make so much history.”

The three-year run has been a joy, especially after girls soccer for the Class of 2023 began in turmoil. The pandemic wiped out the freshman seasons of Smiley, keeper Sam McPhee, defender Emma Rosenthal and forward Morgan Hoffman.

The team constructed a brilliant opening statement two years ago with a perfect regular-season run in the shortened season. That team finished 14-1-0 and reached a regional final. 

It suggested the start of something new and significant.

Gulbrandsen and Smiley earned Chicagoland Soccer All-State honors last year when they led the Wolves to the most decorated season in program history.

Oswego East (18-3-0) reached the quarterfinals of the prestigious, 24-team Naperville Invitational, and captured the first regional championship in program history. They repeated as undefeated, untied Southwest Prairie Conference champion and posted 18 victories for a new single-season record.

The 2023 season started with turnover and new additions. Two crucial players, midfielders Riley Gumm and Morgan Dick, elected to play club soccer to increase their recruiting visibility.

“We knew our team was different this year, so we approached it just ready to compete every game, like last year,” Smiley said.  
“Our approach didn’t change our style of game.”

The Wolves went from a team back in the pack to a squad with a target on its back.

“I definitely think we had a chip on our shoulder all season,” Hoffman said. “Teams wanted their revenge after losing to us the past two years by pretty large amounts.”

Learning how to win is often the hardest part of the equation. The players were in new territory. That required an adjustment and learning curve.

“Last year we were very solid from the offense to the defense,” McPhee said. “We beat teams last year we didn’t even know we could.

“I felt coming into this year that teams might have been a little nervous because of the name we made for ourselves.”

In an echo of last year, the Wolves’ season ended with a state tournament loss against Naperville North.

The 4-1 defeat in the Class 3A regional championship at East Aurora on May 19 marked a clear end for players like Smiley and McPhee.

On a surface level, the season was not quite the same as last year, with just two-thirds the victory total (12-7-2, 8-2-1). Success is measured differently.

The players had their own way of adjudicating the numbers.

“I feel like this season was still a success with the new team we had,” McPhee said.

“We had eight returning varsity players this year, and some stepping into roles they didn’t even know they could do. Our team seemed completely new. We went through our ups and downs. I wouldn’t change the team for the world.”

Gulbrandsen ascended to elite status with the greatest statistical season in program history.

Her 77th-minute goal against Naperville North — off an assist from Smiley — was her 30th of the year. She also finished with eight assists.

“It has been one of my favorite experiences in high school soccer,” Gulbrandsen said. “Everyone who has put on a jersey played with that chip on their shoulder to prove what we could really do.

“It has been amazing to be a part of this group of girls and to contribute to something that’s greater than what you can do as an individual.”

She scored both goals in the York win that sparked a late-season surge as the Wolves went 3-1-1 to close out the regular-season.

The only loss was a narrow 2-1 defeat against powerhouse Plainfield North.

Gulbrandsen scored four goals in Oswego East's 5-1 regional semifinal victory over Plainfield East.

Smiley finished the season with seven goals and nine assists. 

The Wolves had only seven seniors on their roster. Defender Jayla Poindexter and midfielder Maggie Schultz provided crucial depth off the bench.

Indicative of the next generation talent, three underclassmen broke on the scene and showed what they were capable of.

Sophomore midfielder Ana Morales and freshman midfielder Catie Sloan each scored six goals.

Another freshman, Ashley Gumm, finished with four goals.

“There was not a single person on the team who didn’t give 100-percent effort,” McPhee said. 

Oswego East built up its schedule to included teams that qualified for sectional championships including Payton (Class AA), Hinsdale Central, St. Charles North, Minooka and Plainfield North.

“I think a lot of teams thought because of the number of players we lost or did not return that we would not be as good,” midfielder/defender Emma Klosterman said.

“I think our team can be really proud of how hard we worked all season to prove each team wrong.”

Player development and growth is the logical and desired outcome for any program.

The example of Klosterman underscores that. 

She scored a goal, and made up an athletic and gifted defense  with Rosenthal that posted eight shutouts.

“I feel really honored, honestly,” she said. “I didn’t play much last year but even practicing with the girls really helped me improve my skills.

“That really helped me prepare for this year. I have always loved practicing and playing up for a few years. It has helped me improve tremendously. Being part of this team that is capable of so much has meant a lot the past two years.”

Progress is not always direct or linear. A volatile game like soccer lives for the unpredictable.

The immediate past is not always a natural predictor.

“We had a lot of obstacles and challenges this year,” Smiley said. “Although the season was not as good on the stat sheet as a team, we still got through many adversities.

“We have grown so close together.”

Programs are also defined by the quality and quantity of players it develops for the next level.

Oswego East has much to celebrate on that front.

Smiley and Gulbrandsen are the headliners. 

The senior class featured five college recruits with McPhee (Tiffin) and Rosenthal (Illinois-Springfield) set to play at the Division II level.

Hoffman (Wisconsin-Whitewater) and defender Veronica Hamilton (Wisconsin-Platteville) are also future college rivals.

The senior class won a regional and played in two other regional championship games. The team won 44 games in three years, including the abbreviated post-pandemic season of two years ago.

That is the new standard. 

“I will never forget what this team did, and the impact it left on the Oswego East soccer program and the state,” Hoffman said. “I am thankful and lucky to be a part of a team that made it this far and be able to beat teams that used to beat us in the past.

“This was the turning point, and it is only the start. Oswego East will continue to reach achievements, and follow in the footsteps that have been left behind.”

Some of the players, like McPhee, have younger sisters on the team.

With Gulbrandsen and fellow juniors Klosterman and midfielder Lana Bomstad and sophomore defender Jocy Cruz, the future is glittering and bright.

As the seconds wound down against Naperville North, the passing of the baton from the seniors to the next generation was very much evident.

“This has been my family for four years, and I am so proud to be a part of this team,” McPhee said.

“Knowing that we made history will always hold a special place in my heart. Hearing people talk about us, and knowing we could compete was a great feeling. I am sad to say my journey is over. I know the seniors left the program in great shape for the years to come.”