International players come together, fuel Rutgers

With 86 percent of Rutgers-New Brunswick’s 40,720 undergraduates calling the garden state home, it would be easy to assume that non-New Jersey natives are a rarity around campus.

One look at the Rutgers field hockey team’s roster proves otherwise.

Currently hosting at least one international player in each class, the Scarlet Knights maintain a unique diversity and competitive edge in welcoming their teammates from abroad.

With athletes from Canada, the Netherlands and Australia, these players have come a long way from home to pursue their athletic careers on the Banks.

Many assert that some of the greatest strides in personal growth occur when one ventures outside their comfort zone.

These Knights concur.

“Well, right now, third year going, I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far,” said junior defender Sophia Walia of her choice to leave her home in Surrey, British Columbia, to come play at Rutgers.

While she is more than happy with the move she made, becoming a Knight was not a part of Walia’s original plan.

“I just came to campus and I loved it and I loved the coaching staff. My initial decision was to stay home and train and play for the national team and make that but I said, ‘You know what, I’m 16 and I’m gonna go and go to a university and make something out of my four years because education is really what helps you at the end,’” Walia said. “I’m doing what I love as well as getting my schooling done so I’m pretty lucky and pretty blessed to be in this opportunity.”

Day in and day out, these athletes are taking advantage of the unconventional and daring choice Rutgers presented to them. The results they produce on the field speak for themselves.

Walia has made appearances in all five games this season, recording both a goal and an assist in the team’s 4-2 win over Villanova. Named a Big Ten Player to Watch, she also registered a goal on a penalty stroke against No. 9 Virginia.

Walia’s fellow international Knights have wasted no time in producing outcomes on the field as well.

Junior goalkeeper Shevaun Hayes, a Melbourne, Australia, native, has started all five games and earned her first shutout of the season in the team’s second game of 2015 against Ball State. The Aussie maintains a .667 save percentage with a 4-1 record and 21 saves on the season.

Looking further north on the map, Amsterdam, Netherlands, product Linde van Schaik has hit the ground running from the moment she landed in the United States. The freshman midfielder has earned early success in her debut as a Knight, starting all five games and recording two assists so far this season.

Despite the differences in style of play that they are accustomed to in their home countries, these Knights are flourishing on the field through their growing acclimation to NCAA field hockey.

Adjustments are, nevertheless, still a necessity to the foreign-born players’ success.

“Back home it’s a more build up play whereas here I feel its like, a lot of teams go straight for goal,” Hayes said. “That’s a lot different because I’m goalkeeper so they’re coming straight at me full throttle, nothing holding them back, whereas in Australia it’s more building up of the play and getting around and trying to maneuver around the goalkeepers … Back home I feel it’s a bit more predictable.”

Not only have these players had to adjust to stylistic changes on the field, but also in the overall structure of their schooling and athletics.

Traditionally in the U.S., most high schools have athletic departments and sports teams that play an integral part in the college recruiting process.

Schools abroad operate do not operate the same way.

“It’s really different. It’s like a whole community,” van Schaik said of playing at Rutgers. “In my country, my school and hockey are two completely different things so it’s really nice to have a team while you’re in school. When I came here, it’s like you come in a team and you’re not alone so that was really cool and nice to have that. That was, I think, the major difference.”

Many international field hockey players play for club teams that are completely independent and separate from any educational institution. The combination of athletics and education in the U.S. adds to the unique and unfamiliar experience for these Knights of living in another country.

Despite being thousands of miles from home, the welcoming, close-knit atmosphere on the RU field hockey team made the transition for its international athletes seamless. With Hayes buying her first winter coat and seeing snow for the first time and van Schaik still without a phone or a laptop, the experiences these players are gaining from coming to Rutgers will carry through into the rest of their lives.

These Knights have no doubt that this imperative decision has already proven itself to be beyond worthwhile.

“It’s just amazing to be in this program for the four years you’re given … I think that if you just open up a little bit you’ll find a lot more than you’re hoping for,” Walia said. “I mean (the transition) wasn’t hard at all and I think that it just gets easier to welcome in more people into our program. My freshman year a lot of people welcomed me in and now we’re taking that responsibility and welcoming in the new coming freshman.”

While there is an undeniable familial dynamic to the team, having family in the same state and having family thousands of miles away produces unavoidable differentiations.

Nevertheless, the Knights bond over their similarities.

“We connect a lot, especially after games because none of our parents are here every week so we all just have this, we call it the orphan table,” Hayes said of her fellow international players at the team’s post-game barbeques. While most of their teammates enjoy a meal and time with local family members after home games, the “orphan table” hosts the players from abroad as they spend time with members of their diverse “R” family.

Despite the absence of family presence at most games, Walia, van Schaik and Hayes are all looking forward to their families visiting in October the weekend they play No. 18 Penn State and No. 10 Maryland. The shortest flight to Jersey between the three families is seven hours.

Embracing the transnational variations and relying on one another for support in times of need, the central key that enables these Knights to make the most of their time at Rutgers is simple — each other.

“It’s really just the people,” Hayes said of what helped her the most in moving to the other side of the world. “My teammates are the most supportive people.”

For updates on the Rutgers field hockey team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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