Spring Lake Park siblings Gabe and Laila Bensaad-Johnson credit their father and long-time coach, Jayce, for developing their soccer smarts. But their mother, Nawal, deserves an assist for helping grow her children's love of the sport.
She was born in Morocco, located in northwest Africa with coastline on both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Summer visits exposed Gabe and Laila to a skilled, stripped-down version of soccer that made a lasting impression.
The siblings headed with a few cousins down to the beach, where they would jump into pickup games that lasted hours.
"You make goals out of whatever you find, shirts, seaweed, anything," Laila said. "It made me work on developing skills that I use now. And my passion for soccer became greater."
Said Gabe: "That just gets you back to the roots of the game. It reminds you to love playing wherever you are."
Both bring passion to their Panthers teams. Laila is a freshman midfielder/forward in her second season of varsity action. Gabe, a senior forward, earned an all-state honorable mention citation last season.
Gabe's place among the state's top players was never assured. Skilled but undersized, he trailed his peers until midway through his sophomore year.
"I was smaller back then, maybe weaker, and I didn't really keep up physically," Gabe said. But he has grown and "learned how to be more physical and assert myself more," he said.
Gabe overcame adversity when the stakes were much higher 10 years ago, when doctors removed a brain tumor. He relearned to walk and needed about a year to catch up in the classroom. He since became fluent in French -- his Wisconsin-born father met his mother in Paris -- and carries a high grade-point average.
Once a monthly routine, X-rays of his brain are now taken every few years. Doctors told him "they don't think it's coming back."
He is a key player on a Panthers team that started the week 10-3 and beat Benilde-St. Margaret's and St. Louis Park, both ranked among the top 10 of their respective classes.
"He had to climb," Panthers coach Jake Smothers said. "He had to find that drive as a soccer player. I'm really proud to see him do that."
Laila's made a more immediate impression. While her team came into this week with a 3-8-1 record, her coach, Hollister Struck, sees Laila leading the Panthers into a brighter future.
"Laila is very much involved as a key player who can be counted on as a game-changer," Struck wrote in an e-mail. "She accepts challenges and responsibilities well. She's one of our most skilled and creative players and as a freshman."
Brother and sister drill together in the backyard and watch the other play whenever possible.
Gabe said Laila is "really fast. Good agility. She's got great vision and that makes her a great passer."
Scouting her older brother, Laila said: "He is also a good passer. And he scores a lot so he is a really good finisher. I think we have a similar style of play. You can see it in the way we run and the way we do things."
Laila admires her brother's journey as much as his arrival. She took his urgency into her past two varsity tryouts.
"He wasn't at the top as a freshman but he kept striving to be on varsity," Laila said. "And now that he is on varsity, he's still striving to be the best he can be. That inspires me to be the best I can be."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574