As the sun beats down on an unforgivingly hot Charlottesville Sunday afternoon, there’s a noticeable buzz at Turf Field — Virginia field hockey’s home. Sitting at No. 5 in the NFHCA coach’s poll, the Cavaliers are handling Yale, which would improve their record to 5-1.
Freshman back Cato Geusgens winds up her strike and fires a dart into the far side of the net — her second goal of the day — sending the Bulldogs back to New Haven, Conn., with a crushing loss.
Virginia field hockey has a very bright future. It starts across the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 4,000 miles away, in the Netherlands.
Geusgens is one of three Dutch players on the team — together, they make up a crucial part of the team’s young core.
In addition to Geusgens, fellow freshman striker Laura Janssen and sophomore back Amber Ezechiels have fostered a relationship that exudes leadership, production and pure, unadulterated fun.
Sophomore back Amber Ezechiels is a big reason why Virginia have only conceded six goals this season
Courtesy Virginia Athletics
Ezechiels is the oldest of the three players, having arrived at Virginia in 2018 from Nieuw-Vennep, Netherlands. As a pivotal starter in Virginia’s revamped defensive front this season, she’s a big reason why the Cavaliers have only surrendered six goals in as many games. She may very well be the fastest and most cerebral player in the squad, but Geusgens and Janssen value her for her mentorship as well.
“It’s really helpful being able to ask Amber about anything Laura and I need, like ‘what should I bring on bus rides, how should I study’ and so forth,” Geusgens said.
Ezechiels also recognizes her role as the eldest and most experienced of the trio.
“I’ve been here a year longer than [Geusgens and Janssen], so having had to adjust on my own helps me bond with the other two,” Ezechiels said. “I didn’t have anyone to ask questions about the specific Dutch-to-American culture shock, so I’m trying to help them with translation, living here and anything else.”
With this guidance off the field, Geusgens and Janssen have excelled on the field as both players have already notched multiple goals in the young season.
Freshman back Cato Geusgens scored twice against Yale to help Virginia improve to 5-1
Courtesy Virginia Athletics
Despite her youth, Geusgens’ uncanny ability to find the ball and combination of size and technique has allowed her to be an important player in Virginia’s offense. The native of Wassenaar, Netherlands is second on the team in minutes, a tribute to how much trust Coach Michele Madison has in the rising star.
Madison lives by her belief that all of her players are tremendously talented, but that seizing opportunities is what makes these players different.
“You just give them the opportunity — ordinary people do extraordinary things every single day,” said Madison.
Janssen may be the best kept secret on the entire team. Her quiet presence off the field is a shock to those who witness her tremendous ability to stop opposing offenses and score on her own. In just two starts, the speedy freshman from Nijmegen, Netherlands has already netted a pair of goals for Virginia.
So, what made these incredibly promising prospects move to the United States and play in Charlottesville?
For Ezechiels, the University wasn’t her first choice, but once she visited, the combination of the campus, people and atmosphere were key in making her decision.
“I thought that the team was so much better [than my alternatives],” Ezechiels said. “[Madison] always checks up on us and makes sure we feel comfortable playing, and she also asks our opinions and she values our input.”
Janssen also praised Madison’s compassion and ability to make personal relationships.
“She’s really tuned into how [Ezechiels, Geusgen and I] are feeling, how our mental state is — so I really like that she checks on me,” Janssen said. “If we have a meeting, she’s really focusing on how I’m handling being this far from home and enjoying the team. It’s not always hockey-related.”
But the road wasn’t always easy. Transitioning from living in the Netherlands and abruptly coming to school in central Virginia still has its difficulties. Yet, the players have each found a way to thrive.
“My mom brought me to U.Va., so I got to show her around and that helped me adjust,” Janssen said. “It’s an adventure — you’re so busy, so you really want to enjoy the time you have [in Charlottesville]. I just miss the food [in the Netherlands].”
That’s where assistant coach Ole Keusgen stepped in. Keusgen, a native of Germany, knows what it’s like to face the challenges of living and playing in the United States as a foreigner. He’s used that perspective in making sure the girls thrive in their athletic, academic and social environments.
“I had a conversation with Coach Ole, and I really enjoyed talking to him,” Janssen said. “The European connection, community and beauty of the University made [choosing U.Va.] an easy choice. He understands what it’s like to live overseas and stuff, so that’s really helpful.”
Still, the girls seem to be each other’s rock in all aspects of life in Charlottesville. There’s a clear rapport between the trio that makes their friendship shine beyond the field.
Virginia field hockey has enjoyed a resurgence in 2019 after a disappointing finish to the 2018 season. Through six games, the Cavaliers are 5-1 and have outscored their opponents 16-to-6.
The biggest question facing this year’s team is whether the success will continue — Ezechiels, Geusgens and Janssen are all doing their parts to ensure that Virginia makes a deep run this season.
As the rest of the team hurries to get back into the locker room after a grueling weekend featuring two tough matchups — a roar of laughter echoes from the back of the crowd as Ezechiels and Geusgen go back and forth on who is the messier teammate.