By Nan Turner
Freshman VCU forward Janniina Koivunen loves the game of basketball. It’s why she was willing to leave her family in her native Helsinki, Finland and move to the United States at the age of 16 to pursue the sport.
Koivunen first moved to Greensboro, N.C. for a year before heading down the road to Thomasville to attend New Hope Christian School. The transition proved difficult, but not insurmountable for Koivunen.
“That was really different because high school here is so much different,” Koivunen said. “The whole game here is so different. The court is shorter, so that is also different. The tempo is different. It was hard in the beginning but I got used to it.”
Despite the major changes, Koivunen escaped one sometimes-difficult aspect of moving to a different country.
“I went to an English school back home,” Koivunen said. “I was good with it, of course some words I maybe didn’t know, but it wasn’t that bad.”
As Koivunen’s high school career came to a close she began to weigh her options, and where she would continue playing the game she loves. When she first heard mention of Virginia Commonwealth University, it didn’t stand out especially. However, after she visited the campus, VCU was a name she would not soon forget.
“When I came on my visit here I just liked everything,” Koivunen said. “I liked the whole campus, liked the team, and liked the coaches.”
Since signing with the Rams, her relationship with the school has continued to flourish.
“I love the team,” Koivunen said. “It’s just we all love each other and they’re like my sisters. They’re just great.”
Like Koivunen, VCU is in the midst of a transition under first-year Head Coach Marlene Stollings. Koivunen is one of five newcomers on this year’s team, including four true freshmen. While that meant the Rams would be one of the younger teams in the A-10 this year, it also meant there would be an opportunity for players like Koivunen to establish themselves.
Although she was initially recruited by former VCU Coach Beth Cunningham, Koivunen is finding her comfort zone in Stollings’ up-tempo attack. Her multi-faceted skill set has helped her become a regular in the Rams’ rotation. Despite missing six games, Koivunen is averaging 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds. Koivunen has also given VCU a lift with her long-range shooting. She leads the team in 3-point percentage (.387) and is second in made threes (24). Stollings’ offense values 3-point shooting more than most, which makes Koivunen’s skills particularly useful.
Off the court, Koivunen may be a long way from Helsinki, but she’s soaking in the local culture. She says she enjoys the food her new hometown has to offer, particularly the wings served at BoDillaz on Broad Street, although they are not a natural match for her favorite condiment.
“I love ketchup and I carry it around, even in my bookbag,” Koivunen said.
Although she is far away from her family, she hasn’t let the distance break any bonds. Koivunen lists her mother as the biggest influence in her life and says her mom follows her career very closely, even though she can’t always physically attend the games.
Koivunen believes her strength is her basketball I.Q. At the Siegel Center, where she spends so much of her time, she says she connects really well with the coaching staff and finds a support system with her teammates.
“I think sometimes when we’re having a tough time, we still, all of us have each other’s back,” Koivunen said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Stollings says that while Koivunen is impressive as a player, she’s even more impressive as an individual.
“It’s her natural ability. She brings the obvious international style of game to our program,” Stollings said. “Her ability to read things, her basketball I.Q. is very high. Off the court she’s just a joy for us. She’s a very funny kid. We have a lot of fun with her. She’s a jokester at times; just an all around good person.”
Stollings recognizes the adversity Koivunen has encountered to play the game she loves, and she doesn’t see her stopping anytime soon.
“I think she’s going to continually evolve,” Stollings said. “She’s just getting started, just getting used to the American game. I think with increased strength and understanding the pace of the game and the intensity of the game at this level, once she gets that I think the sky is the limit. I think she can play multiple positions where as right now we just have her in one spot. I think her game is very versatile. I think the more she’s here and the more she gets comfortable with our style then she’s going to continue to excel.”