When he arrived at Tumwater High School as a freshman, Nathaniel Gundersen was the smallest player on the soccer field.
Today, he’s grown in height and in stature among his peers, and he stands tall among a group of senior players who led the Thunderbirds to the best boys soccer season in school history.
The Evergreen Conference champions finished 20-2-2, won the Class 2A District IV championship, and did not lose a game until the semifinals of the state tournament, where they finished fourth.
Gundersen, by unanimous acclaim, was the glue of the team, and The Olympian’s All-Area boys soccer player of the year.
“He’s one of the most complete midfielders we’ve had at Tumwater,” T-Birds coach Bryan Winkler said.
“When you watch him play, he’s very smooth. He always puts his body in good position, he’s always on balance offensively. On defense, he picks the right moment to go in and dispossess the opponent.”
How do you measure a midfielder?
By custom and expedience, goal-scorers get the publicity in high school soccer. And this year’s Thunderbirds had a flair for putting the ball in the net.
Tumwater scored 79 goals overall. Kevin Weyand was in on 37 of them, including 23 goals on his own and – when he became more and more of a marked man through the season – 14 assists.
Connor Sigmon was in on 24 goals, and came up big in the biggest games: he scored 10 goals in five postseason games for the T-Birds.
And the versatile Austin Snyder, who won the team’s Transformer Award – “He did so many things for us,” Winkler said – had a knack for getting his team off to a good start: he scored the first goal of a game nine times.
“It was not about the individual scoring, it was about the team scoring,” Winkler said. “They were just as happy for the team scoring as they were for themselves scoring.”
Gundersen himself was involved in 11 goals – five goals scored and six assists. That’s a nice total for a midfielder, but it’s not his main value to his team, Winkler said.
“A playmaker like Nathaniel helps his teammates be successful by putting the ball in places where they can strike the ball on goal or keep possession to sustain the attack,” Winkler said.
A prototypical midfielder, Winkler said, does the things necessary for maintaining possession, for managing the transition between defense and offense, for keeping the flow of the attack moving toward the goal.
“I really enjoy the position,” Gundersen said. “You get involved with offense, defense, basically everything. You get to see a lot of the ball.”
Gundersen has a high soccer IQ, his coach said, and he’s pretty good with his feet, too.
“He can settle the ball at his feet tight enough to where he’s not showing it to the opponent,” Winkler said. “His movement with the ball allows him to do what he wants with the ball when he wants.
“His first touch is just brilliant. He can play the ball to a teammate, or he can strike the ball on frame. His first touch can be a ball that splits the defense and finds an open runner.”
How do you measure a midfielder?
No statistics accurately reflect the worth of a midfielder, Winkler said. But the Evergreen Conference coaches and other soccer purists recognized Gundersen for his consummate skills and value to his team.
The Thunderbirds excelled on defense, too, limiting foes to 24 goals in 24 games. Conference coaches noticed, naming Gundersen the conference’s defensive co-Most Valuable Player along with his teammate, senior goalkeeper Devin Dieckman.
Winkler said that if the conference named a single, overall MVP, Gundersen would be it. He was the “hub of the wheel,” the coach said, making the decisions that connect it all – defending and attacking – together.
Gundersen’s next decision – where to attend college and potentially continue his soccer career – has been made. The 4.0 student will attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an NCAA Division III school in Troy, N.Y.
He has met with Engineers coaches, and sent them game film. But just as important in choosing Rensselaer is the excellence of its architecture school, Gundersen said.
“One of the things we teach is to be humble and prepared,” Winkler said. “Nathaniel is exactly that, in the classroom and on the field. He doesn’t rely on talent alone.”
The Olympian’s all-area soccer team
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nathaniel Gundersen, Tumwater midfielder, senior
A standout player on both sides of the field and a big-time playmaker for the Thunderbirds, who had the program’s best season in school history. Called a prototype of the center midfield position by coach Bryan Winkler. Named the defensive co-MVP of the 2A Evergreen Conference, Gundersen tallied five goals and six assists.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Bryan Winkler, Tumwater
Guided the T-Birds to their best season in program history, winning the 2A Evergreen Conference title, the 2A District IV title and their highest finish at state – fourth place.
GK Devon Dieckman, Tumwater, senior
Was a foundation piece to the T-Birds’ fourth-place finish at state. Allowed an average of 0.80 goals in 24 games, and posted six shutouts. Also was defensive co-MVP of the 2A Evergreen Conference with teammate Gundersen.
D Andrew Saavedra, Tumwater, senior
First-team all-EvCo honoree anchored the T-Birds’ defense that allowed an average of one goal per game (24 goals in 24 games).
D Barrett Walhmark, Capital, senior
Was stellar on the back line on a defensive-minded Cougars team. Helped Capital to the 3A Narrows League title and its second 3A state playoff berth in three seasons.
D Jonny Gundersen, Centralia, senior
A veteran of the Tigers’ defense that surrendered an average of 1.21 goals per game, he also showed off his offensive skills.
MF Kasey French, Timberline, freshman
Blazers coach John Hayes said not many freshman dominated the 3A Narrows League like French, a first-team all-leaguer, did this spring. “He makes other players better,” Hayes said.
MF Jamison Corbin, Olympia, sophomore
A skilled player with a high soccer IQ, Corbin was the hub for the Bears. He was involved in 12 goals (a team-high six goals and six assists).
MF/F Ricky Zamudio, Rochester, senior
SWW 1A Evergreen MVP did a little bit of everything for the Warriors, and led the team to its first league title and second consecutive 1A state playoff berth.
F Kevin Weyand, Tumwater, senior
Weyand, a German exchange student, was a target of opposing teams, recording a team-high 23 goals in addition to 14 assists, including a playoff-record four assists in the 2A District IV title game against Mark Morris.
F Connor Sigmon, Tumwater, junior
Had a late-season surge with 10 of his 21 goals coming in five playoff games, despite a fractured left wrist and sprained right wrist. Those 10 playoff goals set a school record.
F Bryce Joling, Capital, senior
Colorado State-Pueblo signee was the Cougars’ leading scorer (18 goals, eight assists) and can create his own shot. Had the golden goal in team’s 1-0 win over Kennedy Catholic to send Capital to 3A state playoffs.
F Austin Snyder, Tumwater, senior
Excels on the field no matter what position he plays; moved to forward after previous seasons as a defender. Was involved in 23 goals (13 goals, 10 assists). Of his 13 goals, nine were the opening goals in games. He was also a key set-up player for email@example.com