By CHRIS McMANES — He was on fire. He was feeling it. He was in the zone.
It was Feb. 18, Senior Day at DeMatha Catholic High School, and Justin Gielen’s speed, hustle and athleticism were on full display. Of his team’s first 20 points against Good Counsel, he had a hand in 15 of them.
And basketball isn’t even his best sport. Soccer is.
Gielen, who as a freshman scored the winning goal in the 2014 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference soccer championship game, has for the past two years played a key role for DeMatha’s basketball team. He and his teammates are aiming to deliver the Stags their 40th Catholic league title.
“It would be great to close out my career with another championship,” Gielen said.
No. 2 DeMatha (25-5) advanced to the WCAC semifinals with a 72-58 victory over Bishop Ireton on Saturday. It will meet sixth-ranked O’Connell (27-6) tonight at American University at 6:15. The Knights defeated Archbishop Carroll, 61-47.
No. 1 Paul VI (28-2) plays third-ranked Gonzaga (25-5) in the other semifinal.
In addition to helping the Stags win on the pitch and the hardwood, Gielen plays club soccer, summer league basketball and national team soccer. He’s also an outstanding student.
“I’m proud of the young man he is,” DeMatha Basketball Coach Mike Jones said. “When the school year starts he goes right into soccer season. When that’s over with he gets three days off and goes right into basketball. But he’s still doing soccer All-American stuff this year. And while doing all of that, he still has a 4.3 [grade-point average].
“He’s just a great kid, coming from a great family.”
Gielen, a guard with terrific passing ability, scored nine points against Ireton. He is at this writing getting an academic and athletic scholarship to play soccer at Maryland. On Feb. 27, he’s interviewing to see if it can become a full academic scholarship.
His decision to become a Terrapin will keep him close to his Edgewater home and make it easier for friends and family to see him play. At the end of his decision-making process, he chose Maryland over Virginia and Stanford.
“Maryland seemed like the best fit, both campus-wise and school-wise,” said Gielen, who will pursue a business-related degree. “I like the team mentality and their style of play. I think I fit in best there.”
Gielen no longer has a girlfriend. And who can blame him. Between school, sports and a 90-minute commute to and from school, he barely has time for a social life. He finds time to do his homework “whenever” he can.
“We get a lot of free time here [at school] to do our homework, which has been excellent for me, especially this year,” Gielen said. “Pretty much just whenever I get home from practice, I sit down and do it. Then go to sleep.”
Gielen, who started on the basketball team for much of his junior year, gives the Stags a spark off the bench. His career-high point total came in last season’s WCAC semifinals when he tallied 16 points against Paul VI.
He started his final home game at Looney Convocation Center against Good Counsel with fellow seniors Mark-Anthony Fidelis, Xavier Mabry and Deven Richmond.
After assisting on two 3-pointers, Gielen nailed two from the left wing. He added another first-quarter triple from the top of the key to help DeMatha bolt to a 20-10 lead. After halftime, he assisted on two more treys.
With 2:47 to go in the contest, Gielen and his senior teammates left to a round of applause. He finished with 11 points and a personal-best 11 assists.
“He absolutely has the talent to be a Division I basketball player,” Jones said. “He’s had plenty of schools that were at least interested in him. And that was last year. If he wanted to be a Division I basketball player, he could be. There’s no doubt.”
Local and National Recognition
Gielen, the only returning starter for the 2017 Stags soccer team, scored 23 goals in 20 games. The Washington Post described him as a “complete forward with the speed to run by defenders in the open field and the size to win headers in the box.” It honored him as All-Met Soccer Player of the Year.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “I remember being All-Met honorable mention as a [sophomore and junior], and I just felt like I could have done better. To be able to step up and get it done this year was awesome.”
Gielen was also named to play last December in the High School Soccer All-American Game in Celebration, Fla. His East team lost to the West, 4-1.
Things turned out better in late July at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series in Frisco, Texas. Playing with his Baltimore Celtic SC 2000 team, Gielen tallied six goals in five games. He scored what proved to be the winning goal on a header in a 2-1 title-game victory over FC Dallas. He returned home a national champion.
Gielen has gotten used to transitioning from one strenuous sport to another.
“I’ve kind of been doing it my whole life,” he said. “There would be weekends when I was in middle school where I would have a tournament with both sports on the same day. So, we would just be driving back and forth between games.”
Athletic Prowess in the Genes
Gielen’s father, Mike, played basketball at DeMatha and graduated in 1985. His mom, Karin, played soccer at Harvard, where she and Mike met. His maternal grandfather, John Pinezich, was a soccer player for Penn State. Gielen’s sister, Julia, is a graduate architecture student at Columbia. His brother, James, is a rising senior on UMBC’s soccer team.
James and Justin teamed up on the Stags’ soccer team in 2014 and punctuated their season together with a memorable finish. Late in the WCAC championship game, DeMatha found itself trailing O’Connell by a goal. No worries.
James scored the equalizer. Justin won it in overtime.
“We were down on an own goal with like four minutes left in regulation,” Justin said. “And on a corner [kick], my brother heads in a goal. In overtime, I scored another header to win the game. That was pretty cool.
“It was a great night for my parents.”
Stags’ first-year soccer coach Andrew Quinn spoke highly of Gielen during an on-campus National Signing Day ceremony Feb. 7. He said his talented forward had a positive impact on his teammates, particularly the 10 new starters he played with a year ago.
“Justin had an unbelievable four-year varsity career, capped by a very, very impressive senior season,” said Quinn, a former starting goalkeeper at DeMatha and Notre Dame. “He was a great example of how to behave at practice, how to compete in games and how to excel in the classroom.”
Gielen has pretty much decided on only playing soccer in college but is leaving the “door open” about trying out for the basketball team.
“I actually didn’t know which [sport] I wanted to play up until midway through my high school career when I started getting interest from schools like Maryland and U.Va.,” he said. “But coming into high school, I always thought of basketball and soccer as kind of equal, alternating aspects of my life.”
When time allows during basketball season, Gielen plays and practices with his Baltimore Celtic squad. Once hoops season ends, he’ll be playing in two soccer leagues into July. He said one sport helps him perform better in the other.
“It’s weird to say that because basketball’s all hands and soccer’s all feet,” he said. “But when you think about the movement patterns in each sport and that sort of stuff, it’s very much helpful in both sports.”
Gielen will be joining a Maryland program that finished 10-5-2 last season and regularly advances to the NCAA Tournament. Sasho Cirovski’s club has been the proving ground for several pro players. Gielen said he wants to play professionally as well.
“That’s the goal,” he said.
Before the curtain drops on his high school basketball career, Gielen would like to add another WCAC championship to his All-American, national champion resume. He said he’s enjoyed his four years at DeMatha.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Gielen said. “I like the kids here. The atmosphere has been great. There’s a lot of competition between people, and I think that just pushes you to be the best you can.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha basketball for the Hyattsville Life & Times.