Every sport has its hotbeds for up-and-coming talent. For basketball, there is the legendary Rucker Park in Harlem. For high school football, it’s Texas. For field hockey? It’s the Netherlands.
And that’s where Drexel coach Denise Zelenak turned to when she was looking for new talent to recruit.
After sending in high school highlight videos and setting up FaceTime meetings with Drexel staff throughout the recruiting process, Puk Thewessen, Amber Brouwer, Isabel Jacobs, and Eline Di Leva brought the legacy of Netherlands field hockey to Philadelphia.
Field hockey is one of the most popular sports in the Netherlands, with a strong history of success. The women’s field hockey team is ranked No. 1 in the International Hockey Federation world rankings, and won gold in the Olympics in August, as well as at the EuroHockey Nations Championship for a record 11th time this year.
Zelenak, in her 26th season at Drexel, said it was important to recruit from the Netherlands.
“Recruiting is crazy,” Zelenak said. “There are four to seven spots a year and it’s a match when someone wants to come to the school and for us personally someone that wants to come for all four years. It’s all about finding Drexel matches.
“It was also important for us to stay within the Netherlands because of the language barrier. Having that little feel of home amongst themselves is important, and I think they are more successful and more comfortable and confident having each other, too.”
Drexel has had seven players from the Netherlands since 2003, but they aren’t the only school in Philadelphia recruiting talent from there. Across the City 6, 16 field hockey players are from the Netherlands -- four at Drexel and St. Joseph’s (Celeste Smits, Manon van Weezel, Freke Van Tilburg, and Robin Bleekemolen), three at Temple (Myrthe Schuilenburg, Nienke Oerlemans, and Tess Muller) and Penn (Lis Zandbergen, Sabien Paumen, and Frederique Wollaert), and two at Villanova (Anne Drabbe and Sabine De Ruijter).
At Drexel (4-8), Di Leva is tied for the team lead in points, with 14, with Thewessen, Brouwer, and Jacobs tied for second with nine heading into the Dragons’ game on Friday against Northeastern.
Last season, Drexel finished 3-3 in conference play. Sophomore forward Di Leva led the Dragons in three offensive categories, including goals (six), assists (seven), and points (19) and was an all-rookie team selection.
Thewessen described the game as being more “family friendly” in the Netherlands.
“I think the type of field hockey they play here in America is a lot more aggressive than home,” said Thewessen, a team captain and senior back. “Back home you played a sport for fun and here it’s still fun, but there are a lot more expectations and responsibilities. That pressure was kind of intimidating at first, but now we’re all used to it.”
Upon arrival, they were surprised by the difference in field hockey’s popularity in America compared with the Netherlands.
“A lot of people don’t even know about field hockey here. People always ask me, ‘What do you do, is it the same as ice hockey?’” Di Leva said. “Meanwhile, back home me and my friends were at the [field hockey] club the entire weekend.
“We would play together one day, then on other days go watch all the older players we looked up to. Our entire weekend was field hockey.”
The Netherlands is club-based and has no field hockey affiliations with schools, so the American system was new to them.
“A lot of people when they go to college back home, they decide to stop with their sport,” Thewessen said. “So it’s nice that here when you go to college you can play. Field hockey actually opens up a lot more doors for colleges and universities when back home it just closes.”
Coming from a country about 2.8 times smaller in size than Pennsylvania has been a massive culture change. Di Leva and Brouwer were able to visit the school before making the decision to attend Drexel.
“For us, it’s different because if you’re from America then you can visit the school and I didn’t get to do that,” said Jacobs, an All-CAA first-team junior midfielder. “But the first FaceTime call with the coaches, they all made me feel really good and made me feel like family. I also like that it’s a city school.”
They also had to overcome the language barrier, having spoken Dutch the majority of their lives. While they were taught English in school from the age of 12, real-life experiences helped them learn the language even more.
“You learn it through music, or TV shows,” said Jacobs, a junior. “But I had a really hard time when I came here. I was scared to speak even, but you’re forced to speak all the time, so that really helps. Now in my third year, it has gotten a lot better.”
Having each other has helped smooth their transition from the Netherlands to Drexel.
“You’re in a country where it’s not your first language that you’re speaking,” said junior back and midfielder Brouwer. “Obviously, there’s a lot of people here to help us, but it can still be scary. Having other Dutch people here with each other has helped. So if we had any issues with language or cultural differences then we know we can rely on each other.”
Thewessen said some international players may come for a limited time for the U.S. experience. But the Drexel foursome is here for the long run before returning to the Netherlands.
“Coming here, we didn’t know what to expect, but we’re still here and all plan on graduating,” Thewessen said. “Committing to a place for four years doesn’t just take effort from us, but it takes the coaches and the team making us feel welcome, which they have.”