By John Roth, GoDuke the Magazine
DURHAM, N.C.-- Erin Koballa grew up with dogs, rode horses when she was little and used to attend summer camp on a farm, so she's always felt comfortable around animals.
Except lizards. "I'm terrified of them," she says.
Over the past four months she's become pleasantly familiar with a few species that weren't previously on her radar: birds and lemurs.
A senior on the Duke women's soccer team and an aspiring veterinarian, Koballa last summer began volunteering for weekly shifts at the Duke Lemur Center and at Dr. Greg Burkett's local bird vet. She's continued her work at both locations this fall when time permits, and has appreciated the opportunity to expand her base of knowledge in a field she plans to pursue after Duke.
Koballa serves as a technician assistant at the Duke Lemur Center, which is considered the world's largest sanctuary for the endangered primates of Madagascar. She shadows the technicians and helps them with everything from cleaning the lemurs' enclosures to preparing their diets. Occasionally she is also able to interact with some of the 200-plus lemurs that reside at the center.
At the bird vet, she soaks up information from Dr. Burkett on all varieties of birds, the diseases they are susceptible to and what it takes to raise and care for them. "Dr. Burkett is such a great teacher," she notes. "I've learned so much about birds in general, how smart they are, that they have personalities. He has some birds sent over from the wildlife center, and some domesticated birds like cockatoos, cockatiels and a couple of macaws. Someone brought in a huge macaw that just walked in on a leash, which was really cool."
Koballa began volunteering at both locales to enhance her application for veterinary school. Originally a pre-med student at Duke, she decided as a sophomore to major in psychology with an eye on vet school after graduation. She's on target to get her degree this May, but she will still have to take a few courses in animal nutrition and other related subjects that Duke doesn't offer to meet application requirements.
A Wrightsville Beach product, Koballa will apply to vet school at N.C. State, where she took organic chemistry last summer and where her younger sister Kasey studies engineering and plays on the soccer team.
"I love animals, and I think I'm good at being able to care about their well-being without getting emotionally attached," she says. "In that sense I'd rather work with animals than people because it's emotionally harder to work with people. That's why I chose veterinary medicine."
Emotional attachments have come naturally to Koballa on the soccer field, however. A member of the Blue Devils' starting back line on defense, she has been in the lineup for nearly every game of her college career, alongside fellow senior defenders Libby Jandl and Maddy Haller, defensive midfielder Nicole Lipp and goalkeeper Tara Campbell. They've all been fixtures since arriving on campus and have played crucial roles in the team's growth from a middle-of-the-pack ACC club to last year's regular season conference championship and NCAA runnerup finish. So the bonds they share are rock-solid.
"It was definitely a learning experience, definitely some hard times, but that's what we learned from," says Koballa. "Even though we were thrown into the fire, it could have been a lot harder if we didn't endure those obstacles and mistakes early on. Now I think back in games and think through situations on the field, and almost every single one I can say I've been here before. I know what to do now because of a mistake I probably made freshman year."
One of those mistakes came in her second game, when the Blue Devils lost 1-0 to UNC Greensboro after Spartan freshman Heather Padgett got past Koballa for the lone goal. Koballa had played forward in high school and was still learning the ropes on the other end of the field, so every lesson made an impression.
"I remember that goal being my fault," she explains. "I could have cleared it out but I took an extra touch. From that point on it's been, whenever in doubt, get it out of there. Don't mess around with it...Coming to college it was kind of like a news flash reality check - you can't make mistakes anymore. If you do, you have to fix them."
Jandl, who was Koballa's roommate their freshman year, remembers coach Robbie Church's focus on teaching his rookie defenders the concept of team defense and positioning. "In club you play a lot of one-v-one defense and don't work together as much as a unit, so we didn't really know shaping and how to cover for each other," she says. "It was very tough to put all that together and we didn't know any of it. So every game we learned a ton.
"Three freshmen on the back line...Normally you put your experience back there, because the defense is sort of the leadership on the field. They communicate a lot. At times when we didn't know what we were doing, it was hard to communicate for the whole entire team. So that was a tough part, but every year we've gotten better as a group and individually."
The Blue Devils posted a record of 8-9-4 during that freshman year, but did make the NCAA Tournament. They improved to 11-8-4 as sophomores but remained in the middle of the ultra-competitive ACC with marks of 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 in those two years. Last year they took the giant stride to 22-4-1 overall and 8-1-1 in the league, with the back line and goalie Campbell maturing as communicators and leaders. Duke gave up only 13 goals all season and posted 16 shutouts. The Devils outscored the opposition 15-3 in ACC regular season play and won five NCAA matches by a combined 16-3 before falling to Stanford 1-0 in the national title match.
"Libby and I barely talk on the field now because we just know," says Koballa. "I know if I step, she is going to be right behind me. If I get beat and she steps, I'm going to track and get back for her. We all have each other's back. The fact that we know each other so well and are so close, we're able to keep each other accountable and keep each other in line."
"Maddy and Erin are some of my very best friends," adds Jandl. "We have a big bond because of our freshman year. I think we have a blue collar attitude and a lot of pride that we're on the field together and we've made it so far together. Natasha (Anasi) stepped in last year and she fits in perfectly with us. We all have a great bond. I wouldn't want anyone else to the left and right of me."
Duke returned its entire starting lineup and 90 percent of its scoring from last year and consequently was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 nationally in the preseason. The Devils had to get by without two of their top scorers, Mollie Pathman and Kelly Cobb, for all of the nonconference games because that duo was in Japan helping the United States win the Under-20 Women's World Cup. Duke won six of the seven pre-ACC matches and was still a top-five team when they returned.
"It seems like an accomplishment (to be so highly ranked), but at the same time everybody is gunning for you, everybody wants to take you down," Koballa notes. "I still feel like we're that underdog team. Even though we made it to the national championship game I still feel like people don't think we deserved to be there, so that gets you fired up. You want to go out there and prove everybody wrong. I'm sure everybody comes at us thinking they can beat us and we want to prove them wrong."
Heading into this weekend, the Blue Devils own an 11-3-1 overall record and a 5-2-1 mark in the ACC. While they ranked as one of the highest scoring teams in the country with 47 goals, they also had allowed more goals (18) than they did all last year - something Koballa, Jandl, Haller and company were intent on tightening up during the stretch run of the season and their final push for a national title.
"We know we're capable of getting there and making it happen, but we have to make it happen," Koballa says. "One thing we've emphasized is that we can't guarantee it's going to be the same as last year. We have no guarantees that we're going to get a number one seed. There are no guarantees at all. So every time we step on the field, we have to bring it every single time."