In the second 2013-14 edition of the “Senior Sit Down,” The Daily’s Sam Fisher chatted with men’s soccer senior midfielder JJ Koval.
Sam Fisher (SF): First of all, does it feel real yet that you’re a senior and this is your last go-around here? I know it happens so fast.
JJ Koval (JK): Gosh, it does go so fast. Does it feel real? Yeah, because this last season is so important to me, to the team. Not just because I’m a senior, but every season is so important. And we’ve been working hard at changing things since Jeremy Gunn and John Smith got here. So yeah, it’s an important season, and it means even more to me because it is my senior year. Just being aware of the fact that, yeah, this is the last season that I’ve got playing Stanford soccer and it’s such a blessing. And I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s hard to see the tail end of it coming. But it just makes me relish every moment even more.
SF: It’s been a wild season so far. Some big wins, some tough losses, and I think bookended—your first game and then your most recent game—by two 3-3 draws. You don’t see that a lot. So what’s this season been like for you and the team?
JK: We’ve had a good start to the season. Relative to last year, especially, we’re in a good position. The season is never going to go exactly how you want it to. Soccer is a very imperfect sport. This past weekend, we didn’t get exactly the results that we wanted, but the cool thing is this next weekend we’ve got another opportunity, and that’s all you can really look forward to. So the team is in good spirits. We’re excited about taking every challenge in stride and looking forward to the next one and not dwelling too much on the past. Like I said, it’s been an awesome start to the season. A lot of exciting moments and a lot of promising stuff for the future. We’ve got seven games left before the playoffs. Our goal is to win the Pac-12 and to make it into the playoffs, and that won’t change.
SF: You have a really big test coming up in No. 1 Cal.
JK: Yeah, we’re going to their place on Sunday. They’ve obviously been getting good results, but we’re excited about another opportunity, another challenge. We’re not fearful at all. We’re ready to go, man.
SF: People in a few sports have told me that the Stanford-Cal rivalry really grows on you—it’s a lot different as a senior than it is as a freshman. Do you feel that way heading into it?
JK: It is a rivalry, but every single game I want to treat it the same exact way and I would want the team to treat it the same exact way. Because I feel like if we treated a rivalry any more important than another game, we’re doing ourselves a disservice in the other games. I don’t think I’ll be any more excited about it, and I don’t think the team will either. To be honest, we don’t think about rivalries too much, and I don’t think we should. Nothing against the rivalry—I know it has a lot of history in all sports for both the schools, which is awesome and exciting. It creates an exciting atmosphere. But we’ll approach it just like any other game.
SF: You talked about that there have been some ups and downs this year. You’re having a pretty good start to the year, especially compared to last year. You’ve been through a lot as a senior. A lot of Stanford sports don’t have senior classes that have had such a tumultuous ride. So what’s it been like for your class? Can you talk about the dynamic of your class and the type of leadership that you guys bring to the younger guys on the team?
JK: You’re right. We’ve seen a lot over the past three-and-a-half years. We’ve seen a lot of change over the past two years. Gosh, coming in freshman year, we only had six wins total the whole season. I’ve seen the team transform a lot from a team that wasn’t really sure how we were going to do, hoping to get results every game, to a team that now, we expect to win every single game. And that confidence and energy, the excitement that we have with each other as a unit, is something that I’ve seen change so much. I think our mentality has changed a ton. So, as seniors, we have experienced a lot and that just gives us that much more responsibility for the younger guys, showing them how much every game matters, how much training every single day like it’s your last training session matters. We see what the mentality was when we were freshmen and sophomores and now how the mentality has changed. They didn’t get to experience that first mentality, so it’s even more important to us to instill that new mentality in the younger guys and teach them how important every single day is to getting better and pushing yourself forward.
SF: As you mentioned, you don’t have a lot of days left to do that. In season you’re probably focused on that, but have you thought at all about the things you want to do at Stanford when you’re no longer on this team?
JK: I haven’t thought about it too much, to be honest. I haven’t thought about too much other than just soccer this whole quarter. [Senior goalkeeper] Drew [Hutchins] and I are on track to graduate at the end of December. So I’m not really sure what’s next. I would love to go to med school someday—I’m just not sure exactly what the future holds.
SF: So you’re on track to graduate in December? What’s your major? What are you taking right now?
JK: Human biology. So I finished that up last quarter. So I’m done with that. Now I’m just filling in some units to hit 180. I’ve also been doing pre-med. I still have four or five [pre-med] classes that I have to finish up that I’m not finishing now because I’m finishing early and I couldn’t fit all of them in. I am almost done with pre-med, I’m done with human biology and so, obviously, one of my dreams is to go back, finish those classes and go to med school, God-willing someday. I’m so focused on this quarter and the season, and I think Drew would say the same thing, that I’m not thinking too much about jobs or school or anything else after.
SF: What about soccer? Have you thought about what kind of role you want soccer to play after the season? Are you going to try to continue playing afterwards?
JK: I want to play as long as I can. I love the sport. I can say that with a smile on my face because I truly enjoy going out every day and playing this sport. It’s been a dream my whole life to play after college and to accomplish that would be awesome and be such a blessing. But I’m not thinking about that too much right now. I’m 100-percent focused on the team and the here and the now and the unbelievable season that we have the possibility of having. So the answer is yeah, I want to play soccer—I don’t want to stop. I love it too much. I’m excited about that, but it doesn’t cross my mind too much right now.
SF: Are there any types of traditions or things that you do as a senior when it gets closer to the end of the season—whether it’s a day that you give speeches or something else that you’re looking forward to—or something that could be an emotional moment?
JK:I don’t know about anything in particular. I think the hardest thing is just the relationships that I’ve built with the guys on the team. It’s a family. We do so many hours every day together, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That’s something that I hold as so valuable to me. All of my friendships and relationships with the coaches and the guys on the team. That’s the hardest thing to think about letting go of, because they mean so much to me. Family is family, and that’s hard to leave. I think that’s the hardest thing is just thinking about leaving those friendships.
SF: It’s a pretty different experience, having so much time together, more than you had in high school or club. Is there any comparison to how close you’ve become with this team? What was your club experience like? Did you ever play for a team for a really long period of time?
JK: Yeah I did. And you become close with the guys that you’re training with every day, but it’s nothing like this. The hours that I’ve spent with this team are just so much more. Club soccer, it’s a little different. It’s not as much about a collective unit and working hard together all year round for a common goal and common purpose, and like really being able to look across the room and push that guy that you’re looking at because you know he’s going to push you. That’s something that you don’t really get when you’re in middle school, high school, playing on a club team. You don’t get that. Coming here, that’s something I’ve learned and something I really enjoy. So it’s definitely a stronger bond I think.
SF: Are there any moments that really jump out, whether overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly low, that encouraged you during your time at Stanford?
JK: Gosh, there have been so many highs and lows. I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about specific games as highs and lows. Obviously, again, the high has just been learning so much from these coaches, learning so much from the relationships I’ve made on the team. I would say that’s the high. I want to win just as bad as anyone else does, or probably more—I’m extremely competitive, and that matters so much to me. But, at the end of the day, those relationships that you make, for me that’s the biggest high. And obviously this year, this is the high year. I want to go out making the tournament because we haven’t done that yet since I’ve been here. I want to make sure that we do that this year, and that will be the high.
SF: Can you talk a little bit about the dynamic of sharing a field and so much of your time with Stanford women’s soccer, which is enjoying, since you showed up, the most successful period in its history. You talked about what you guys were fighting through. You’ve had a really strong start to this season compared to years past, but you guys went through some tough times while they were going through their best ever, so what was that like for you guys?
JK: We’re happy for them and how much success that they’ve had. We see someone out on the same field that’s doing really well in the league that they play in, and it makes us want to be the best at the league that we play in. So we respect them, but we don’t think about it too much. We want to do just as well as they do. A part of me wouldn’t want it any other way. All the struggles taught me so much. I don’t think you would ever want anything to be easy, not that it’s easy for [the women’s team] at all. But I’ve enjoyed the struggles, too, because I feel like they’ve taught me so much about who I am and what a team looks like and what we should be striving for. So I embrace the struggles, and I’m happy that they happened. I wouldn’t trade these four years for anything different, as crazy as that might sound. You can look at successes in different ways and the amount that’s changed for me individually and as a team since I got here freshman year to now is amazing, and that’s a big success for me.
SF: A few months from now, when you’ve moved on from that to wherever you end up, who are going to be the guys who step up in a leadership role for you? Who are some of the guys that you think are ready to take all that experience and understanding and continue pushing this team forward?
JK: I think a lot of the guys have different leadership qualities. When you think about a leader, you can’t really just say that there’s one attribute that a leader has. Guys can lead in many different ways. You’ve got a guy like [sophomore] Brandon Vincent in the back line who is a leader. He’s a leader now. So he’s not going to have to change much going into next year. Guys like [sophomore] Aaron Kovar, an excellent player, [sophomore] Ty Thompson, [junior] Zach [Batteer], you can go down the whole list. Everyone has his own way of leading. Some guys are going to have to step up and be a little more vocal, because a big part of being seniors and being a leader on the team is pushing the team forward, not just in the way that you act and the way that you train but also by the things that you say. So yeah, some guys are going to have to start talking more. Austin Meyer talks a good amount. But like I said, I think everyone fulfills a leadership role in different ways. They’ll just have to embrace that leadership role more. And I think naturally, as time goes on, you become more comfortable and more certain of what the culture is here and you’re able to convey that to the younger guys. There will be plenty of guys that step up and continue to do the same things that they do and take more ownership of the team.
SF: You mentioned that on the field you really want to make the [NCAA] tournament, win the Pac-12, and in the classroom you want to finish up your degree this quarter and then eventually med school. But is there anything that you really want to do off the field that you haven’t been able to do yet—not necessarily in the classroomthat you’re looking forward to being able to do after the season?
JK: Outside of the classroom and soccer? I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been able to still be a part of other things. I’m involved in a Christian group on campus, Cardinal Life, as well as a bible study that I’m a part of. So I’ve been able to meet and spend a lot of time with and grow a strong relationship with people outside of the classroom and outside of my team, even though that’s already a lot. I feel like I’ve been able to branch out, to an extent. You’re right, Stanford offers so much so I can’t say that I took anything near to the advantage of all that it offers. I walk around, and I’m so blessed to be at this placeit’s an unbelievable place, and I’m like, “Gosh, J, there’s so much more you could’ve done.” But with that being said, there’s so much I have been able to be a part of. So yeah, a piece of me wishes I could’ve just gone here and been able to invest in other things, but I wouldn’t wish away what I have for a second.
SF: When I talked to [women’s volleyball senior outside hitter] Rachel Williams last week, she joked that she has a bucket list of things, like she’s never been to Hoover Tower. You don’t have any lists like that of things you need to do?
JK: I don’t think so.
SF: Have you been up Hoover Tower?
JK: Yes I’ve been up Hoover Tower. It’s a sweet, sweet spot. I’ve been up there a few times. We’ve taken recruits up there a couple of times.
SF: I’ve heard that [Hoover Tower] is used in recruiting where if all else fails and a recruit is lost, you tell him to find the tower and pick him up there. Have you seen that used?
JK: I have not, but that’s pretty funny. Hoover Tower is awesome, man. But I don’t think I have a bucket list. I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I wish I had more, and I want more time, but I appreciate what I’ve had. I can’t really think of a bucket list of stuff.
SF: Do you have one place on campus that you’ll miss the most?
JK: It’s got to be [Cagan] Stadium. Going out there on a Friday night, having the lights on and just the feel of a game about to start, you don’t get anything like that anywhere else on campus. And I guess it just means more to me, obviously, because I play on the team and I get to be a part of that. Those moments make all the hard work and effort worth it. Those are the moments that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life and never forget. The pitch is definitely the thing that I’ll remember most.
Contact Sam Fisher at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu.