Men's soccer chases NCAA berth

Many SU sports have enjoyed homefield edges lately

Road teams were in for a rude awakening upon arrival at Laird Q. in 2012. Though it had only made the NCAA postseason once in the last nine years heading into last season, Stanford men's soccer was becoming no pushover under the guidance of new head man Jeremy Gunn. Not that Bret Simon's teams were soft, but Gunn's boys weren't afraid to mix it up; they took the fight to your house.

Results were still to be had against the Card, but you really had to earn it.

"They're completely changing the program to have a tough, combative mentality," senior midfielder JJ Koval said about the Gunn regime. "That has definitely changed the way we look at practice every day, as well as the games. So that changes for this year; the team has a completely different mentality. We're going to be one of the hardest-working, toughest teams out there, and that's what we pride ourselves on."

And, as the season went along, results were harder to come by for Stanford's foes. After an up-and-down non-conference slate, the Farm Boys won three of their last four, all of them on the road, no less. That closing spurt included a 1-0 win at UC Santa Barbara, the school with arguably the biggest home-pitch advantage in men's college soccer. All told, Stanford finished above .500 (9-8-1) for the first time in three years, after beating their last two opponents, San Diego State and Cal, by a combined score of 10-1.

"What happened last year was we were still learning about our own players and they were learning about us," Gunn said. "And so the early part of the season, not only were we competing against our opponents, but we were also having to figure ourselves out. And as the season moved along, we became more and more effective as a group, and we took that into the offseason."

Definitely a solid first campaign for the Gunners, especially considering the program's recent history. But early-season losses to teams like Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount ended up being at least a part of the explanation in the team missing out on the NCAA tournament for the ninth time in 10 years. Thus, you can figure out what the expectations are internally for this group.

"That's the No. 1 goal. And once you get there, you set new goals," senior defender Tyler Conklin said of making the tourney. "It's always how I've approached goal-setting: You set a high goal, but once you get there, you set more and more goals."

True, this team loses some talent from last season. This includes Adam Jahn, a gifted finisher who tallied 13 goals in his final campaign and is now having an impressive rookie season with the San Jose Earthquakes. This also includes Hunter Gorskie, a no-nonsense vocal defender who made you pay a troll toll or two before trying to take a crack at goalkeeper Drew Hutchins.

That's where the leadership of senior midfield J.J. Koval will come into play. The lone team captain, Koval is always smiling, and was literally giggling with joy during a recent interview with reporters. Still, he is also more than happy to give a hard tackle, and will look to lead by example.

"As a senior, I want to be someone they can talk to and communicate with," he said. "I want to be helping set the high standard for the team, and pushing everyone every day. [The younger guys] need to learn [the mentality of the team]. For them, it's not as ingrained as it is for us that we're going to be tougher, we're going to be harder-working."

You won't have to wait too long to find out how far along this group is. No.2 Maryland and No. 3 Georgetown visit The Farm on the first two games of the schedule, returning the favor after the Card's 2011 East Coast swing to those schools. How's that for opening your 2013 slate?

"Very tough tests for the guys, but that's what we want," Gunn said. "Our ultimate goal is to become one of and hopefully the best program in the country, and in order to do that, we need to find out what that's all about. … I think these two games in the opening weekend are going to be a wonderful challenge and yet, incredible opportunity."

But let's not overthink things here. When it comes to getting Stanford back to the tournament, the head coach has a simple plan, and I'm not talking about some pop punk band I've never listened to or a 1998 drama flick I've never seen.

"We gotta score one more goal than the other team every game," Gunn quipped. "That's all. The rest of it is all a lot of rubbish, isn't it?"

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