Gal's 'presence' is a present for the Cavs
Transfer's steady demeanor already impressing teammates, coaches
Ask a member of the Virginia men’s soccer team, coach or player, about Jeff Gal, and he will likely describe the sophomore goalkeeper’s “presence.” Presence, though, is a vague word of varied associations. Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has a certain presence when he steps to the free throw line, as does New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez these days in the Bronx. Ignoring these dubious connotations, however, we can recognize that some of the soccer greats have been described as having “presence” on the pitch.
Jeff Gal, then, possesses “presence.”
The question is, of what kind?
“His presence is a calming presence,” Virginia assistant coach Michael Behonick said. “When you’re playing in a game and as a goalkeeper, you want to be a calming presence, you know, behind the back four to make sure you always have things in control. You want people to know you’re in control at all times, not panic, and be a guy that’s consistent and confident back there.”
One glance at Gal’s statistics in his freshman season at Creighton — the Illinois native transferred to Virginia this summer, after two years playing for the Jayhawks, the first spent as a redshirt — and you know: in addition to that “presence,” Gal possesses ample talent. In 15 starts for Creighton, Gal posted seven shutouts while amassing 57 saves on a .851 save percentage.
Though his 13-1-1 record owes partly to the talented team surrounding him — Creighton won the Missouri Valley Conference’s regular-season and conference tournament crowns — the Blue Jays’ postseason success left no doubt as to Gal’s value to the squad. In the course of No. 12 Creighton’s run to the NCAA Tournament semifinals, Gal shined, making a season-high eight saves in a Round of 16 overtime victory against No. 5 Akron and shutting out No. 4 Connecticut on four saves in the next round.
Judging from sophomore defender Zach Carroll’s description, Gal has already minimized stress for the Virginia backfield.
“I would say he’s kind of like a quiet leader,” Carroll said. “He’s not the guy who’s barking at everyone, but he’s just kind of the guy who’s smooth and steady at the back.”
Gal seems to have found a place within the team dynamic with relative ease in his short time on the roster. Coach George Gelnovatch used the words “calm,” “smart,” and “cerebral” to characterize Gal, likening the goalkeeper to Diego Restrepo, who started for the Cavaliers’ 2009 championship team.
Not a bad recipe for “presence.”
“I don’t think the acclimation process has been hard for him,” assistant coach Michael Behonick said. “It actually almost seems like he’s been here for his whole career.”
Gal is from Bartlett, Illinois, 35 miles northwest of Chicago, and he initially opted to stay close to his Midwest roots at Creighton in Omaha. Gal, though, has traveled far from home before, soccer serving as his vehicle. In high school, as part of the U.S. U-18 National Team Pool, the Illinoisan honed his goalkeeping in Oregon and Arizona. He also accompanied the squad to Portugal’s Lisbon International Tournament.
Gal said the strength of Virginia’s coaching staff, which, led by Gelnovatch, has shepherded the Cavaliers to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last 17 years, was a strong force in bringing him to Charlottesville. But that was hardly the only perk which drew him into the Cavaliers’ orbit.
“Just the school in general,” Gal said. “You know, I came from a smaller school. Coming to a bigger school like this was a big factor. And I think there’s just a certain tradition to winning … I’m happy to be here.”
So comfortable between these pipes these days, Gal almost seems to have had a preternatural inclination to goalkeeping. Not until late into his adolescence, however, did he embrace the position fully.
“I started playing when I was about six years old,” Gal said. “I have no idea why I decided to become a goalkeeper. I was a field player and a goalkeeper up until I would say seventh grade … In eighth grade, I kind of decided that I wanted to be a goalie, and it kind of just went on from there.”
Virginia, a precocious team without much veteran depth — only one senior, defender Kevin McBride, started in the Cavaliers’ season-opening loss to No. 7 Louisville, and none opened Monday night’s 2-0 victory against No. 23 St. John’s — can surely be glad Gal’s winding path took the turns it did. Presence is not so difficult a quality to come by, but it comes in a myriad of forms, and those around the men’s soccer program tout Gal’s presence as the right kind. It is one that, hopefully, will be felt in Virginia for the next few years — perhaps even augmenting with time.
“I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Behonick said.