Two suitcases in hand. Nothing to accompany her but a lifetime of field hockey and a strong family support system behind her.
It was Eva Smolenaars’ first time in the United States when she flew in to start her first year at UNC in 2017. All by herself in Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Eva wandered to the arrivals area, where then-senior and fellow Netherlander, Eva van’t Hoog, waited to pick her up.
This past summer, a second Smolenaars sister, Jasmina, touched down in Raleigh, ready to play for the team her sister helped to three national titles.
Now, during her last semester as a Tar Heel, Eva is guiding her sister through the same adjustment to this new country, culture and team that she was introduced to five years ago. Although the rest of Eva and Jasmina’s family is still overseas, a sister is enough to make a massive University feel like home.
Eva and Jasmina grew up in the southeast Netherlands in the city of Weert. With their father, Jules, playing in lower-level leagues when they were young, it wasn’t even a question if Eva, Jasmina or their older sister, Hana, would pick up a stick.
H.V. Weert, the field hockey club that the Smolenaars family belonged to, was only a 10-minute drive from their house. The club became the family’s destination to not only train, but to socialize — it was a second home.
“I don’t think the field hockey conversations would really stop,” Eva said. “We would take them from the club and to our home.”
With Jules acting as coach, the girls trained side by side, day after day. Being 2.5 years apart, Eva and Jasmina didn't play on the same team, but built each other up regardless.
“We’ve obviously had that conversation like, ‘Who is the better player?’ and tried to be competitive against each other,” Eva said. “But at the end of the day, we are different players in similar positions and have different strengths, and we want each other to develop as best as we individually can.”
Leaving home, 'flying alone'
With such a close-knit home life, it was a surprise to her whole family when Eva expressed interest in going abroad. Although it was hard as a parent to send his daughter off to a foreign country alone, Jules supported Eva’s decision.
“To me, it’s like a bird who is first jumping out of the nest and flying alone, and I believe it's part of life,” Jules said.
Aside from the culture shock of living in a new country, Eva’s first semester was hard on her. She was homesick and found the transition from speaking Dutch to English extremely difficult.
When Eva attended a first-year college athlete workshop, she found her first sense of belonging in women’s soccer player and British international Lotte Wubben-Moy, whose father is Dutch.
“I was so shocked that suddenly someone not on my team could speak Dutch to me," Eva said. "It felt familiar, just felt like home for some weird reason.”
Living two floors above Eva in Avery Residence Hall, Wubben-Moy and Alessia Russo, another British member of the women's soccer team, formed a tight friendship with her, sharing common ground as athletes abroad.
Eva soon became acclimated to the program by the embrace of her teammates and coaches. In the absence of her own family, other parents stepped up to include her in family dinners and gatherings.
Jules kept in touch with Eva through daily phone calls and text messages and watched every single one of her games with the family and Jasmina. In the lineup before each game, Eva would always smile directly into the camera since she knew that her family back home was watching.
During Eva’s junior year, her parents finally made it to the United States and watched her start in two games against Wake Forest and Liberty. Impressed by the University and experience, Jules went back and raved about it to Jasmina. Coincidentally, a spot for an international student opened up on the 2020 roster, and UNC head coach Karen Shelton reached out to Eva about Jasmina’s interest in the team.
“In Holland, it's a very family culture," Dutch UNC assistant coach Robbert Schenk said. "The club of UNC and the field and the setup is very similar to a European club where the family is there, and the parents are around, and it's not just a faraway field in no man’s land."
But with COVID-19 complications, Jasmina’s international transfer process had to be put on hold — leading to her spending her first year at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
With Schenk's help, Jasmina was finally made eligible to come to the states and play for UNC for the 2021 season. Just a few weeks ago, it was Eva who picked up Jasmina and her couple of suitcases and drove her to campus to begin another new journey in the United States.
“I looked out of the window and saw football fields, baseball fields and all of the big school signs on the fields,” Jasmina said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is from the movies!’”
Eva helped Jasmina do all the things that she had to figure out for herself during her first year — like setting up a new phone number and a bank account. She also introduced her younger sister to the rest of the team and many aspects of American culture.
“One side is easier, Eva is telling her where to be, where to go,” Jules said. “And then the other side is also sometimes a bit more difficult because (Jasmina) has to find her own way.”
One semester playing together
Playing on the same team for the first time, the sisters have challenged each other in practice and have already made an impact on UNC’s play. The two have played a combined 402 minutes in their four games thus far, Eva with three goals in the attacking third and Jasmina with six shots in the midfield.
The most special part to the sisters, though, isn’t just playing with each other for the first time — it’s wearing the consecutive numbers 21 and 22, which means they’re next to each other in the lineup.
“We get to hold each other during the national anthem and share that special little moment before the game starts,” Eva said.
Off the field, the two live in the same house, speak Dutch to one another and frequently make joint calls with their parents. Sharing her first semester at UNC with her sister has helped Jasmina adjust to her new life and combat that homesick feeling Eva once struggled with.
“I still get homesick when I call Mom and Dad, but when I'm not calling with anyone, I'm fine,” Jasmina said. “Because I know Eva’s here.”
With her UNC field hockey eligibility coming to a close after this semester, Eva hopes to leave Jasmina with a good foundation to navigate her own way on the team. After college, both Eva and Jasmina hope to one day return to the Netherlands for further education and to play in a pro league — just like Jules did.
But for now, they’re hand in hand in the lineups, Jasmina accompanying Eva, with a lifetime of field hockey and a strong family support system in front of them.
“It’s a dream come true, to be honest,” Eva said.