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Saturday February 4th

Yentl Leemans' journey to UNC — and back to the game she loves

<p>Midfielder Yentl Leemans (18) looks down the field during Sunday's ACC championship game against Wake Forest. UNC won 7-2.</p>
Buy Photos Yentl Leemans looks ahead to teammates in the ACC Championship against Wake Forest last season. The Tar Heels won, 7-2.

To Yentl Leemans’ surprise, the ball fell to her stick on a penalty corner in the second quarter of last Friday's game against Virginia. She didn’t panic, though, instead hurling a shot into the back of the net for her first-ever goal in a North Carolina field hockey uniform.

Leemans, a senior captain on the team, was calm. But her teammates and coaches were ecstatic.

The midfielder from Breda, Netherlands is typically the one setting up the goal, not the one scoring. She’s a coach's dream, a true team-first player.

In fact, when asked last week, Leemans didn't even know that she led the ACC with nine assists.

Yentl plays because she loves the sport — her love earned her a spot on a top club team, the Netherlands' youth national team, and the No. 1 ranked North Carolina field hockey team. 

Her journey wasn't that simple, though. Yentl had to lose her passion for the sport she was raised on in order to rediscover it in Chapel Hill.

‘There’s a difference, which is funny’

Field hockey is just different in the Netherlands. It's arguably the best country in the world for the sport and routinely produces the best players.

The reason? Kids start young — and Leemans got into the game early, even before other children, because of her mom's involvement in the sport.

“It’s actually the only sport I've really played,” Leemans said. “I played tennis for a year when I was 10 or something. But, I just started playing field hockey because my mom was a field hockey coach and I always went with her to practice. I just enjoy watching it.”

Yentl's father, Paul, explained that field hockey in the Netherlands starts as a three-on-three sport for eight-year-olds, and more players are gradually added. This differs from U.S. field hockey, where, according to Yentl, kids typically start playing around the age of 13 and jump right into full-field games.

“In the Netherlands, you can start playing field hockey when you are around seven,” Paul said. “She was too young to start playing. So she just went along with her mom whenever she had practice ... whenever there was a halftime, she played with all the other players."

Yentl credits her skilled, deliberate play to the Dutch style of field hockey she was raised on, which contrasts with the American game she is now ingrained in.

"I feel like my country is more focused on little drills with little stick skills," she said. "And that's why we're all very skilled with that. We have less skill with hitting and reverse hits, which I think is better here. So there's a difference, which is funny.”

Yentl was eventually good enough to earn a spot on a club team called Hurley in Livera Hoofdklasse Hockey, in the Netherland's top field hockey league. She was also noticed by the Netherlands' national team and earned spots on the U16, U18 and U21 teams.

She had no idea that the experience would change her relationship with field hockey forever.

‘I just kind of lost my joy’

Yentl's' dream was to play for the Dutch national team, and she was well on her way to that goal as a member of the U21 team, the oldest age group before the real thing.

Then, it all came crashing down.

“I just kind of lost my joy in field hockey,” she said simply.

First, she was the only player on the team from her club, so she didn’t know anyone. Many of the others had previously played together, and made an effort to only look out for each other, Yentl's father said.

“They purposely played the ball to each other rather than to her, just to make sure that their teammates from Amsterdam would look good in front of the coach,” Paul said. “And she didn’t like that atmosphere ... the part that ‘My team doesn’t need to win, my friends need to win.’”

That me-first environment wasn't what Yentl was looking for. So she decided to give up her childhood dream of playing on the senior national team and began to look at options in the U.S.

She had already attended the prestigious Dutch college Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam for two years, so she would only have two years of playing eligibility in the NCAA. 

She wanted to make sure that she got the most out of that time. To find a school, she went to the NCAA website and looked at the nation's top-ranked field hockey programs.

As an international transfer, it was complicated for Yentl. She didn’t have anybody coming to recruit her, so she had to reach out to the coaches herself.

“I didn't know anything about any school in America,” Yentl said. “And I was looking at good field hockey schools, but also like academic-wise, good schools. I came down to four schools, and I just reached out to all four of them.”

The four schools were Duke, UConn, Syracuse, and UNC. Paul was familiar with all the schools because he attended college in the U.S. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He would tell his daughter stories of his time in the U.S., which piqued her interest even more.

“I told her how if you like sports, the U.S. and the U.S. education system is the place to be,” Paul said.

Yentl heard back from all four of the schools that she contacted. UNC head coach Karen Shelton was impressed with her play against some of the best competition field hockey has to offer.

“We were able to see some footage,” Shelton said. “She played at a high level. There's a certain level in Holland — there's all different kinds of levels — but the Hoofdklasse is the highest level, and we knew that she was playing in that.”

Yentl narrowed her list down to the Tar Heels and the Huskies. But she knew that head coach Karen Shelton and the University of North Carolina was the perfect fit. 

“We didn’t even need the UConn call anymore," Paul said, "because it felt so good that she wanted to be at UNC.”

‘I just had a feeling about this school’

The Netherlands is more than 4,000 miles from Chapel Hill; Yentl never even visited North Carolina before her first day on campus. 

Still, despite the culture change, Yentl knew it was the right place for her.

“It all just worked out,” she said. “I just had a good feeling about this school.”

In 2018, Yentl walked into one of the best field hockey programs in America — in a new country — knowing virtually no one. She didn't miss a beat.

Yentl hasn’t lost a game as a member of North Carolina's team, which had a perfect national championship-winning season last year. She was also named second-team All-ACC in her first season as a Tar Heel.

“I didn't even expect to be on that,” Yentl said. “I didn't even realize that they actually saw me. But I don't think about that stuff. I mean, my main concern is that we win.”

This season, Yentl has stood out in the assist column. As of Saturday, she leads the team with nine assists on the season and leads the country with 1.22 per game. Her team-first mentality has earned her a role as a captain, despite having played just a little over one season with the Tar Heels.

“It's a dream come true for a coach to have an international come and integrate so quickly and lead the team after just two years,” Shelton said.

It's also been a dream come true for Yentl, who went from leaving the U21 Netherlands national team to being a crucial part of the best field hockey team in the country. The Tar Heels are 9-0 this season, and Yentl says she feels "more valued."

"I have more joy," she said. "And also I just feel less pressure. I just play the game.”

Coming to UNC has allowed Yentl to enjoy field hockey again, a testament to both her and the program as a whole. Her family sees that, too.

“Every time I speak to her, she says ‘I'm so happy that I'm here, I'm so happy that I'm here,'" Paul said.

Yentl even plans on staying in Chapel Hill for graduate school, because she wants to stay as long as possible. In the meantime, she will look to lead the Tar Heels to a second straight undefeated season, and continue reveling in the joy of field hockey.

Maybe she'll even score another goal along the way. Not that it would matter to her.

@matt_chilson

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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