Nov. 21, 2009

By Roger van der Horst
Special to

WINSTON-SALEM — Charlotte Verstraten, a Dutch native playing field hockey for North Carolina, is obviously delighted that she chose to return for a second season in America. Her team has reached the Division I championship game here, to be played at noon Sunday at Wake Forest's Kentner Stadium.

"I want that ring on my finger," the sophomore forward said before the Tar Heels defeated Virginia 3-2 Friday in the semifinals. UNC (19-2) will face No. 1 Maryland (23-0) in the final.

With or without the ring, Verstraten already has her plane ticket home. By January, she'll be going to a university in Amsterdam. For her, as for so many young Dutch field-hockey players, the so-called gap is closing again.

And that has coaches like Carolina's Karen Shelton frustrated. Shelton would like to reverse the trend of Dutch players coming to U.S. schools only for their "gap year" — a year between high school and college. The UNC coach even favors a limit on the number of international players on collegiate field-hockey rosters.

"I would love to see us agree on having a maximum, because it's hurting our sport in the long run," Shelton said. "Four would be plenty, maybe even three."

The Dutch influence on the American college game is clearly reflected in the 2009 final four. Every team brought at least one player from Holland, and Maryland's coaching staff includes technical director Tjerk van Herwaarden. Since hiring him, Maryland has won three NCAA titles in four years.

"The Dutch have historically been the best and most sophisticated hockey culture in the world," Maryland head coach Missy Meharg said.

The Dutch women's team won the 2006 World Cup in Madrid and the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing. In men's field hockey, The Netherlands won Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000, finishing second in 2004 and fourth in 2008. The reasons for Holland's success range from its sophisticated club culture to artificial turf.

"They have the most field-hockey players per capita, and their system allows children to play at a very, very young age, and they get to play on Astroturf. That helps set them apart," Shelton said. "It's a family culture in Holland. The men play, the women play, the children play, and you play throughout your life."

In youth and high school field hockey in the States, she said, "there's so much 'hit and hope' when you play on grass. You cannot develop the fine skills, because they don't work. ... Some grass is real long. Some fields are real bouncy. And it's just a lot of luck, a lot of bashing and hitting, so there's not a lot of organization."

In Holland, kids start learning technical skills at age 5 or 6 with their club teams. Yet, the club system is about more than just the game, Maryland's van Herwaarden said. "It's your social life," he said. "You hang out, you go to a bar, you have your social life on the weekends really happening on the field-hockey clubs."

Even the country's small size works in its favor, he added.

"It's very easy to get together, to talk as coaches, to share knowledge, to brainstorm, to just develop yourself," van Herwaarden said. "Knowledge is so easily spread."

The gap year between high school and college also is part of Dutch culture.

"Before they go into college, they like to have a year of having fun, just for enjoying life, exploring the world," van Herwaarden said, "and field hockey has been used for that."

A four-year degree in the United States doesn't mean as much to Dutch players. For example, Shelton noted, a Dutch athlete can spend a gap year going to school here and go straight to medical school in Holland without a four-year degree.

"The studies we are doing here — I am doing general studies — it won't count for anything in The Netherlands, or not for the studies I want to do. I don't want to say it would be a waste of time (to stay at UNC), but ...," said Verstraten, adding that to do so would mean drifting apart from her closest friends back home.

Maryland's Meharg said she avoids recruiting Dutch athletes who want to come only for their gap year. Ameliet Rischen of Rotterdam, who scored a goal in the Terps' 7-5 semifinal victory over Princeton, is a senior.

"You can't make someone (stay), but you need to recruit on the premise that this is about earning a degree and there's a responsibility to the university that way," Meharg said.

Players who leave early hurt their schools' graduation and academic progress rates. Shelton said coaches are becoming more inclined to recruit in other countries, such as South Africa and Argentina, where a U.S. degree carries a higher value.

Plus, van Herwaarden believes he can sell Dutch players on a competitive reason for staying more than one year — a different sort of gap. It is the gap between the junior and senior levels of play overseas. Most players aren't ready to bridge it when they turn 18, he said.

"The NCAA, with its system, with the coaching, with the facilities that all these schools have, is the best possible developmental system for players who are ... just not ready for that step," van Herwaarden said. "Spending three or four years in the United States is the best they can do."