River Stewart wasn’t the only reason for the Meadowdale boys soccer program’s dramatic turnaround over the past two seasons.
But the talented sophomore striker certainly played a massive role.
Two years ago, the Mavericks suffered through a one-win campaign and finished dead-last in Wesco 3A/2A with a winless conference record. They struggled mightily on offense, mustering just 12 goals all season.
Yet with the addition of Stewart and his scoring prowess at the top of Meadowdale’s attack, finding the back of the net is certainly no longer an issue.
The right-footed striker fired home 32 goals this season and added 10 assists, leading the Mavericks to the Class 3A Northwest District title and the program’s first state appearance since 2005.
For his spectacular sophomore campaign, Stewart is The Herald’s 2019 Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
“That’s very rare to find in a lot of kids, especially at his age,” Meadowdale coach Mike Nelson said of Stewart’s elite goal-scoring talent. “For him to have that scoring-threat ability, especially at that age, … I think speaks a lot.”
Stewart made an immediate impact last year as a freshman, netting 15 goals while leading the Mavericks to an 11-win season that ended only one victory short of state. He built on that with a superb sophomore encore this spring, scoring or assisting 42 of his team’s 49 goals during Meadowdale’s 14-6-0 campaign.
Since winning only one match two years ago, the Mavericks rode their star underclassman’s 47 goals over the past two seasons to a combined 25 victories.
“Wesco is a competitive league, and the last two years especially, it’s been very senior-heavy for a lot of teams,” Nelson said. “For him to come in as a freshman … and to compete at that level against kids who are two years older and really kind of put that mark out there, it’s impressive what he’s done so far.”
Competing against older players, however, wasn’t anything new for Stewart. When he was younger, he played in adult leagues to gain experience in facing bigger and stronger opponents. And in club soccer, he’d occasionally play with a team one or two age levels above his own.
“That’s been a huge help going against these guys (in high school),” Stewart said. “So in a way, I’ve been always kind of used to going against people that are bigger or stronger — learning how to use maybe my skills instead of my strength.”
Nelson said one of Stewart’s greatest skills — in addition to finishing scoring chances — is his ability to set up those opportunities by receiving and controlling the ball with a soft touch. Stewart said he developed his touch while kicking the ball with his father and brother in their old all-concrete backyard, which included a large concrete wall they would kick against.
“(It was) just things like passing with each other or passing off the wall — doing one-touch (drills),” he said. “My brother would kick it in the air and I’d control it off one-touches — just simple things like that really developed this touch that I learned how to use in my game.”
In a season filled with goals, his most spectacular one came on a highlight-reel bicycle kick during a four-goal performance against Oak Harbor. As Nelson described, Stewart received a cross with his back to the net just outside the 18-yard box, then popped the ball up to himself and acrobatically flipped a shot into the upper corner of the frame.
“It was probably one of the best goals I’ve seen in high school soccer,” Nelson said. “That was kind of the moment I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is special.’”
Another goal that stood out to Nelson came during Meadowdale’s 3-1 win over Marysville Pilchuck in last month’s district title match.
“(Stewart) dribbled inside the box, and there were a bunch of defenders and attackers in there,” Nelson said. “Somehow he maintained possession of the ball through like three defenders — as well as our other players in traffic — and put the ball in the back of the net.”
Stewart, who also plays high-level club soccer, said the thrill of winning that district championship was particularly special.
“Just the feeling of winning for your school something as big as districts — especially coming back from where we were — is just an amazing feeling,” he said. “It just gives you goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Stewart’s exceptional play this spring ultimately helped make that moment possible. But when asked about his goal-filled season, Stewart was quick to deflect credit to his teammates.
“The chemistry that we have is just right on,” he said. “My teammates were a lot of the reason … why I got those big stats.”
And as eye-popping as those numbers are, Nelson said he thinks Stewart’s best is still yet to come.
“What’s even more impressive is that he’s getting better,” Nelson said. “I don’t think he’s hit that plateau yet. I think his room to grow is set pretty high, and I think we’re just seeing the surface of it all.
“I think as he gets older and he continues playing at the levels he’s playing at, he’s only going to get better.”