Oct. 20, 2010
By Larry Watts
Just over five years ago, Joelle van Ierland was coming to a crossroads. A standout in field hockey, where she had helped lead her team to runner-up honors in the 2005 Dutch National Championships, she was approaching her final year of high school in Dan Dolder, Netherlands and had yet to decide where her future path would take her.
"I was thinking about coming to the United States to play and go to school," she says. "Then I had a conversation with Floor Rijpma, who was from my home."
Rijpma was in the process of establishing herself as one of the top field hockey players nationally at Michigan State University. Now an assistant coach at Central Michigan, Rijpma graduated last year after being named the top offensive player in the Big Ten and earning first-team All-America honors.
"During our conversation, she asked me if I was still interested in coming to the United States to play and I told her I was thinking about it," van Ierland says. "Evidently she must have talked to Rolf (van de Kerkhof) because he called me the next day and we talked about playing field hockey at Michigan State. Then he came out to see me play."
Van de Kerkhof, a former standout at the national level in The Netherlands, has successfully used the Dutch pipeline to build Michigan State into a collegiate power. When van Ierland committed to play in 2006, she became the fourth Dutch player on the Spartan squad.
"After Rolf watched me, he told me he was very interested in having me play for Michigan State and what I needed to work on," van Ierland says. "Then I went through the recruiting process without even visiting Michigan State. With Rolf and the other girls from The Netherlands, I knew I would always have someone to go to if I came here."
Now a fifth-year senior center back for the Spartans, van Ierland says her biggest hurdle to clear in adjusting to American culture was expanding her limited English vocabulary.
"The great thing was this team was so welcoming when I came here and there was always someone to help me out," she says. "My biggest problem was I didn't know the right words to use when I had to find the nearest restroom. To this day, Rolf still jokes with me about that."
On the field, van Ierland had to adjust to a new style of play. Unlike The Netherlands, where players are more spread out and depend more on passing, she found a faster game in America.
"The training is a lot different here, more conditioning and weightlifting," she says. "I was used to having a couple of practices a week and then a game on the weekend. Here you have four or five practices a week and two games on the weekend. I wasn't used to playing so much, so between practices and classes, I don't have much time for anything else."
Because of the popularity of field hockey in their country, more Dutch players are finding their way to the United States to play at the collegiate level.
"I started playing when I was 4 and I could probably keep playing at the club level until I'm 80," van Ierland says. "It's a very popular sport with the men; my dad stopped playing two years ago at the age of 55. Both of my sisters, now 29 and 27, are still playing back home. They are very jealous of the fact they are out there playing in all that rain while I could come here to play field hockey and learn so much about this country."
But instead of rain, van Ierland has to deal with a little more snow in East Lansing.
"All of a sudden we had about a foot of snow on the ground one day during my freshman year," she says. "I'm used to one or two inches the entire year back home. And the temperature is so different. I called my parents and told them I didn't know how I was going to get to class.
"The first night we got a bunch of snow, several of the girls from my dorm took me out and got down to show me how to make snow angels. Then we built some snowmen and had a snowball fight."
Van Ierland's freshman season on the field was a short one. Three games into her rookie year, she suffered a stress fracture in her right leg. Although upset at first about the injury, she soon realized the extra year she would have at Michigan State would be more beneficial in the long run.
"It (the injury) has only made me a stronger player," she says. "Even though I wasn't playing, I was still able to remain a big part of the team. Before I had that injury I was pretty confused about what I was doing on the field. Being on the sidelines really helped me a lot in the adjustment process and to learn more about how they played the game here."
Van Ierland drew 18 starts as a redshirt freshman while the Spartans finished third in the Big Ten and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In the next two seasons, she started all 45 matches as the Spartans advanced to the Elite Eight both times.
Michigan State swept both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles last year while she collected career highs of eight assists and 10 total points. Through a 11-3 start this season, she has already matched her career total with two goals while her seven assists have pushed her to a career high 11 points.
Now one of three players from The Netherlands on Michigan State's roster, van Ierland says she began her field hockey career as a forward. She moved to the midfield about 10 years ago and then became a defender three years later.
"I'm quite comfortable on the back line and don't know what I'd do if they ever moved me back to forward," she says. "I always have a good view of the field and try to make sure I am always setting up my teammates for offense."
Van Ierland admits her adjustment to the American way of life has also created a little addiction to mushroom pizza and cheeseburgers. This past summer, she even took a weekend excursion to Chicago, where she made sure to take time to devour a deep-dish pizza and some hot dogs. She wouldn't mind talking van de Kerkhof into arriving a day early for the Northwestern match.
"I think he might know the real reason, so I'll have to come up with a good excuse," she says with a laugh.
Although field hockey may be more popular back in The Netherlands, it didn't take van Ierland long to figure out how popular sports are in general with American society.
"Nowhere in Europe do they turn out for sports the way they do here," she says. "My friends have no idea what football is like here. I went to my first football game (at Michigan State) and had no idea about what was going on. I kept asking questions to the point where I finally decided to cheer whenever everyone else did.
"I made a video with the girls I went to the game with and sent it back to my dad. He said he sat at his computer and must have watched it 12 times that day and just laughed. My parents are so happy about the experience I am having here."
An interdisciplinary studies major focusing on human resources, van Ierland will be receiving her degree this winter, but she will not be heading home. Her next stop in January will be Argentina, where she will be pursuing a masters degree in international business.
"I'll be studying there two years and they have a club field hockey system similar to the one back in The Netherlands," she says. "I've enjoyed my life in one new country and now I'll try another one. I'm young and can travel, so getting these new experiences will help me down the road.
"I probably know as much Spanish now as I did English when I first came here. How to find a restroom will have to be one of the first things I'll have to learn to say. By the time I am done with my studies I will be fluent in three languages and that will help me a lot in business."
According to van Ierland, the toughest thing about heading to Argentina will be leaving family and friends behind for the second time in her life.
"You never know where I am going to end up," she says, "but there is always Skype!"