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College Basketball

After four years with Maryland soccer, Justin Gielen chasing hoop dreams with Mount St. Mary’s basketball

After graduating from Maryland in four years, Justin Gielen is back to feeling like a freshman at Mount St. Mary’s. Not in age, but in rooming options.

“It took me until graduate school to be living in a double in the dorms,” he said. “I didn’t have a roommate until this year. So yes, I definitely do feel like a rookie.”

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That state of mind might also have something to do with his athletic vocation. After a celebrated career with the Terps men’s soccer program that included the 2018 NCAA championship, Gielen has switched to playing basketball for the Mountaineers (4-6, 1-1 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference). In three games so far, he has scored two points, grabbed three rebounds, and picked up two fouls.

The numbers might not seem like much, but coach Dan Engelstad said he appreciates Gielen’s impact on the team.

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“He gets us better, and I think he’s progressing at the rate we hoped he would,” Engelstad said. “I know he’s a competitor and wants to be on the floor more often, and he’s trying to learn the game, and he’s trying to learn us, and that’s all you can ask as a coach.”

Gielen, an Edgewater resident, said he has been playing both soccer and basketball for as long as he can remember. Those roots stem from his father, Michael Gielen, who still ranks No. 25 in Harvard men’s basketball history in scoring at 1,104 points, and his mother, the former Karin Pinezich, who was a two-time All-Ivy League first-team selection in soccer in 1985 and 1987.

But Gielen’s prowess at soccer developed quicker, and at DeMatha Catholic High, he was recruited by Maryland and Virginia to play soccer. Despite the scant attention from basketball programs, Gielen said he never gave up his passion for basketball.

“I kind of always thought of myself as a basketball player who was just pretty good at soccer,” he said.

Maryland forward Justin Gielen celebrates after scoring a goal against UMBC at Ludwig Field in College Park on Aug. 29, 2021. In four seasons, he compiled nine goals and five assists in 66 career games (27 starts).

As a freshman in 2018, Gielen played 18 games, including two starts, during the Terps’ run to their fourth national title. In four seasons, he compiled nine goals and five assists in 66 career games (27 starts) as a striker.

Terps coach Sasho Cirovski described Gielen as “an incredibly well-put together person.”

“He’s as tough as you get, and yet he understands the importance of playing on both sides of the ball,” Cirovski said. “For us as a striker, he was very valuable in the way that we wanted to shape our defensive tactics by the way he pressed the ball.”

Ironically, when more than a handful of players from that 2018 squad left for professional soccer opportunities, Gielen’s outlook changed.

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“I think it was through that process and a little bit of the pandemic that I realized that I just didn’t want that for myself,” he said. “And if I was going to do that sort of thing and take a professional path, then I think it would have to be basketball to make it worth it for me.”

Gielen’s basketball aspirations were well known throughout the soccer team. On at least two occasions, the soccer team organized four-on-four basketball tournaments during the offseason, and Cirovski said Gielen — who played basketball in open gyms on campus at least once per week during the offseason — was clearly the best player on the court. Both Gielen and Cirovski said there was some discussion about Gielen joining the men’s basketball program as a practice player before realizing that the soccer and academic commitments proved too much.

Cirovski said he and Gielen’s teammates supported Gielen’s pursuit of basketball.

“I said, ‘Yeah, this is awesome, pursue it,’” he said. “I’m delighted that he’s fulfilling his dream of getting to play college basketball at the D-1 level.”

After contributing to the Maryland men’s soccer team’s march to the 2018 NCAA championship, Edgewater’s Justin Gielen is making the leap to playing basketball at Mount St. Mary’s. (Courtesy of Mount St. Mary's Athletics)

After graduating last December from Maryland with a bachelor’s in finance, Gielen sought to play basketball at UMBC and George Washington, but both attempts fizzled. Then Jack Lonergan — son of former Vermont and George Washington basketball coach Mike Lonergan, who is close to Michael Gielen — talked to Engelstad about Gielen, who tried out in August and joined the team the following month.

“We really liked our returning guards, and we told him that,” Engelstad said. “But he’s worked really hard and he’s helping us in ways that might not show up on the court right now. With guys who are not getting the minutes that competitors want, we want him to stay with it and keep working because when he has had opportunity, he has played really hard.”

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Playing soccer helped Gielen get his conditioning up to basketball levels. Grasping the mental concepts has required him to study the playbook on his phone and attend more film sessions with coaches.

“Soccer is a lot more free-flowing, and you can kind of make it up as you go along,” he said. “There are some principles you do, but for the most part, it’s kind of just a feel. In basketball, it’s plays that are pretty choreographed in terms of what you’re doing and the steps that you make.”

Gielen acknowledged that the reduced playing time has been an adjustment after starting in 25 games in his last three seasons with the Terps soccer team. But he said he is not discouraged.

“Whether I get in or not, that practice is going to be beneficial for me in life, and I can look back on this process and not have any regrets about what I did,” he said. “At a certain point, it’s out of your control, and you’ve [got to say], ‘That’s life.’”

Gielen is studying for an MBA with certification in data science. He said the next priority is finding a way to play basketball professionally.

“But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself here,” he said. “I want to keep in mind the position that I have now and stay hopeful. There’s a good quote. I want to keep my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground.”

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Loyola Maryland at Mount St. Mary’s

Saturday, 7 p.m.

Stream: ESPN+


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