Before Tanner Stepp could even walk, his grandfather would hold him by the arms and swing him, making him kick the soccer ball with both his right and left foot. Being strong with both legs was important, he would later tell his young grandson.
While Stepp, now a senior at Gig Harbor High School, didn’t know it at the time, his grandfather knew best.
Stepp’s grandfather, Keith Weller, had some experience to draw from. Weller played in the English Premier League in the 1960s and 70s, suiting up for Tottenham Hotspur, Millwall, Chelsea and Leicester City. He’s considered to be one of Leicester City’s greatest players.
"Growing up, he taught me everything I should know about the game," Stepp said. "Hard work was huge. Growing up, his parents never really supported him with his dreams to be a professional soccer player. He knew he had to work hard in order to achieve that goal. I think that hard work mentality has been something that has been instilled in me through him."
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And yes, Stepp is proficient with both feet.
"He has the ability to not only go left and right, but think left and right, also," Gig Harbor coach Todd Northstrom said. "Sometimes you can shoot left and make a pass left, but you’re afraid to go left, pass left and open up a field to the left sometimes and take space that way. He does that; he goes to all sides. It probably goes back to that moment. That’s a big part of his game."
Another area Stepp’s genetics come into play? Toughness. Stepp’s older brother, Braden, also played for Northstrom.
"They’re smart and tough; they play through injury," Northstrom said. "Their grandpa — I’ve never met him — but that just kind of seemed like the type of guy he was, the old-school, English Premier League guys. They’ve broken bones to go out and play. They don’t care. Both the Stepp boys are a little bit of a throwback to that. They both loved their grandpa a lot and they want to honor that. It’s important to them."
Weller died in 2004 from cancer. He came to the United States in 1978, signing with the New England Tea Men of the North American Soccer League. He bounced around to various teams in the United States, helping grow the sport in the U.S.
Stepp, an All-Narrows 4A first team midfielder last season, is hoping to channel Weller’s skill again this season. The Tides, loaded with seniors, look poised for a big year.
Gig Harbor also returns first-teamers Ike Northstrom, Edwin Brown and Jon Brown. The Tides are favorites to once again win the league after dominating it a year ago. In total, the team has 17 seniors on the roster.
"All the guys coming back ... the team chemistry is just really strong," Stepp said. "All of us growing up together, playing together for four years, we have massive team chemistry… I think it’s going to be a really great season. I think we can go far in the postseason. I don’t see us losing in the regular season, actually."
The Tides struggled to score goals in the postseason last year, something that Northstrom hopes to address this year.
"We worked too quick," Northstrom said. "Every team knows we want to spread the field and get the defense to be somewhat of an accordion so we can find our holes. We forgot to play the ball through the midfield and became just a north and south team, and tried to let Eddie or Ike run into space."
Northstrom compared it to PAA youth soccer, where teams put the fastest kid up top and let them run past everyone and score goals. This season, the focus is to get back to the basics and work from the middle of the field. If the Tides can increase their goal-scoring production, Gig Harbor should have a big year.
"Hopefully this year, we’ll make the luck go our way by doing all the right things, staying focused in school and off the field," Northstrom said. "All that karma comes to play. I think we deserve it. These guys work hard. The sky’s the limit."
Gig Harbor (1-0) got off to a quick start on Saturday, beating Curtis, 2-0.