While most of the Fairfield University undergraduate body consists of students from the surrounding Northeast and the New England region, the university also attracts students from across the country and even the globe. Few, however, have come from as far as field hockey player Carmel Van Dijk ‘24.
Born and raised in the Netherlands, Van Dijk began playing the sport at the age of four, spending 12 years until her high school graduation on the club team Almeerse HC.
Given her home country’s national love for field hockey, it’s no surprise that Van Dijk quickly gravitated towards it. The Dutch women’s national team are four-time Olympic gold medal winners, including as recently as in the 2020 Olympics Games in Tokyo, and both the men’s and women’s teams currently rank number one in the world, according to the International Hockey Federation.
“It’s one of the most popular sports back home,” she said. “It’s a really big thing.”
Despite her wealth of experience, though, the transition to the United States and to Fairfield was a challenging one, for reasons both on and off the field.
“The game [in the Netherlands] is a lot more technical,” Van Dijk said, “and here you have to be a lot more fit, a lot stronger.”
Compounding those changes were the circumstances of Van Dijk’s arrival in Fairfield. Coming in as a first-year in 2020, the field hockey season was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally a fall sport, the Stags and the rest of the NCAA instead played a shortened schedule in the spring of 2021, with numerous restrictions in place to prevent jeopardizing the health of student-athletes.
“We didn’t get to see each other a lot,” Van Dijk said. “We were in select pods of five or six depending on positions, and we were playing with masks.”
“It was necessary at the time, but it was stressful,” she continued.
With a new style of play in the U.S. also came new expectations. Van Dijk saw limited playing time in her freshman season and had to slowly work her way onto the field in brief opportunities, a challenge she wasn’t used to while playing club in the Netherlands.
“Back home, we were on a team of 15 or 16 and everyone would play regardless of how good or bad they were,” she said. “Coming in here and being bottom of the barrel, I had to really adjust my mindset.”
Van Dijk’s patience and hard work paid off quickly, as she saw the field in all 22 games of her sophomore campaign, and scored her first career goal in a 5-0 win over Merrimack College on Oct. 24, 2021. She has remained a mainstay on the field for the Stags in the years since, including tallying four goals and a team-high seven assists this fall.
Those efforts have contributed to a Fairfield squad that went undefeated in Northeast Conference (NEC) play this season, and 14-3 on the year overall.
“I’ve been a part of some great teams back home, some less than great teams back home, but this team is hands down the best one that I’ve gotten to be a part of,” Van Dijk said.
Team chemistry and quality preparation in practice have been the driving factors behind the success of the team this fall, according to Van Dijk, and she believes they’ll need to call on those traits again in order to have the right mindset going into the conference playoffs this weekend.
“In the past, when we’ve had struggles during our games, it’s because we were too in our own heads about the opponent or the game we were playing,” she said. “If we play our game and do what we’re good at, that’s when we have the best chance of winning.”
Regardless of how things go through the remainder of the season, Van Dijk will look back fondly on her time as a Stag. From traveling to Delaware for the NCAA tournament in 2021 to scoring the game-winner in double overtime this year against Villanova, to growing into a team leader over her four-year career, Van Dijk has plenty to smile about.
“I love everyone that we play with, and our coaches are fantastic,” she said. “I’m very happy with how my career has progressed.”
Van Dijk and the Stags will head to Staten Island, N.Y. on Friday to take on Wagner College in the NEC semifinals.