Freshman Verneri Valimaa eyes the ball during a game against the VCU Rams Saturday night. Mason lost the game 1-0. Photos by John Powell

RICHMOND, Va. — When most freshmen walk on campus, their aim is to find new friends, find off-campus parties and overcome homesickness. When Verneri Valimaa, the Patriots’ midfielder, walked onto campus, he was met by a family that was already in place.
That was, in fact, one of the reasons he chose to call George Mason Universtiy his home in September of his senior year in high school. While Mason’s assistant coach and main recruiter, Nick Carlin-Voigt, went all-in on Valimaa, it was not the Floridian’s only offer.
He may be as good in class as he is on the field. He was staring down offers from the likes of Ivy League schools like Harvard and major conference schools like teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was a member of the Mu Alpha Theta mathematics honor society while attending American Heritage Academy.

The academy was ranked first for Mu Alpha Theta in private schools and second when private schools were thrown in to the mix.
“Verneri was injured his sophomore year and ended up having a great senior year and being named Gatorade Player of the Year,” Carlin-Voigt said. “He’s a player that had ACC interest. He could’ve gone to Duke, could’ve gone to North Carolina. The thing that’s great about Verneri is that he’s an Ivy League student; [he] could’ve gone to Harvard, could’ve gone to UPenn.”

To seal the deal, coach Greg Andrulis flew down to the Sunshine State; he even gave Valimaa something special. Andrulis was a Major League Soccer coach before coming to Mason and has professional connections. Soccer is Valimaa’s life, and that fuels his desire to play after college, where Andrulis can help.

“I had a great family visit when I went down and sometimes you click with people and it’s comfortable,” Andrulis said. “With kids nowadays making decisions so early, we’re not able to do that. But Verneri’s situation allowed us to go in and have a home visit. If that was the deciding factor, I’m glad we did it.”

Valimaa penned the deal in September so he would not have any distractions during the season. The respect that Andrulis had for Valimaa and his family by visiting before his senior year was rewarded with the early decision.

Usually a 5-8 midfielder would need good finesse with the ball or incredibly agile feet, but Valimaa had something that set him apart, even beyond his work in the classroom.

He had international experience. He worked with the U.S. Under-18 team, but when they snubbed him for the U20 games, he got another call to play for Finland in the U20 games during his senior year.

Valimaa holds dual citizenship with Finland and the U.S., so he took the invitation to play across the pond. If that was not enough, he had a chance to play in the second half of the match against the U.S., which ended in a scoreless tie.

“There’s always a lot of pride involved,” Valimaa said. “Here, it’s representing your school, but there it’s representing your country. It’s a lot bigger.”

Things did not get any more easy after coming to Mason; he has a tighter schedule than most. At least he and his roommate, fellow midfielder Timmy Mulgrew, have something to keep their minds stress-free.

“He plays FIFA in the morning before class, in the middle of the day, after dinner,” Mulgrew said. “He loves to play FIFA. He loves to claim he’s the best player every to play.”

For instance, on Thursdays, Valimaa wakes up at 8 a.m. for his class at 9 because, after all, he is still a student-athlete. Practice is at 11 a.m. and after watching film, the team moves to the field. Everyone works on similar parts to their game, scrimmaging for a half-hour or so to get game-speed practice in.

“[Being a student-athlete] takes a lot. You have a lot of stuff going on, but going to practice is like a stress-reliever,” he said. “That 4-hour gap is just about soccer and I don’t really think about anything else.”

They do have mandatory study hours, which he goes to in the afternoon, but he gets all his homework done in that time so he can focus on what is really important to him.

While most of the players start to roll out around 1 p.m. for class and others filter out after some position-specific work, Valimaa sticks around longer. On Thursday, he stayed for nearly an hour working with Carlin-Voigt on his finishing moves.

“The coaches are great,” Valimaa said. “They’ll stay back whenever you want them too, whenever you need them. I don’t always ask them to stay with me, but when I do, they always help me out.”

But for lunch, he shows his freshman colors. Only on campus for a month, he still eats at Southside every day.

While Friday nights are usually considered the time that shuttles stop in front of the Hampton Roads residence halls, Valimaa would rather get prepared for Saturday, when the men’s team almost always has a game.

“He is very dedicated, keeps me focused a lot, too,” Mulgrew said. “Just his lifestyle, he loves the game.”

Homesickness is not even an issue. He had to learn how to handle himself after playing on an international stage, not to say that his parents aren’t involved in his life. He talks to them often, calling his father before games, and they watch his matches online.

“He always says the same thing, ‘just take the ball from the other team and give it to your friend,’” Valimaa said.

He has family all around him, with his team and his support back home. The Patriots have been able to make big strides in their game this year, earning a No. 18 ranking just a few days ago.

Unfortunately, they fell Saturday afternoon to the VCU Rams with a 0-1 final score for their first conference loss of the season. They will try to right the ship when Drexel comes to Fairfax Wedneday night for a 7 p.m. matchup.