This article will be published in The Review’s special magazine issue, set to be available on campus starting the week of April 24.
When Rolf van de Kerkhof departed his post as head field hockey coach at Michigan State University in favor of the same role at Delaware, he was questioned by nearly everyone in his circle in the college sports industry.
He heard chatter that he would be committing professional suicide by voluntarily leaving a highly-resourced “Power 5” athletic department at Michigan State for a mid-major Division I member in Delaware. In his interview with then-Blue Hens athletic director Bernard Muir, he was asked if he felt comfortable moving from coaching in the prestigious Big Ten Conference to competing in the Hens’ Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).
Van de Kerkhof’s answer pleasantly surprised Muir and spurned the assumptions of onlookers.
“I said, ‘Why not?’” Van de Kerkhof told The Review. “That’s what we said in 2016. ‘Why not?’ ‘Why [not] us?’ And so we got great buy-in. That [2016 national championship team] may have not been the most talented players group as individuals, but as a team, they were the strongest unit.
“They would probably give up their lives for each other, and nobody could mess with them.”
As it happened, no one was able to meddle in those Hens’ playoff march: it culminated in their national championship win, which stands as Delaware’s most recent NCAA title and as the crowning achievement of Van de Kerkhof’s time at the helm.
From player to coach – or player and coach
Van de Kerkhof, a native of the Netherlands, tried his hand in a variety of sports in his youth.
“I say it with my own children now, you try to allow them to explore and get some exposure to different sports, so we played tennis and judo and soccer,” Van de Kerkhof says. “Soccer was maybe not cool enough in our opinion, so some of our friends liked hockey. Hockey tryouts became hockey team, and hockey team became hockey career.”
Van de Kerkhof rotated across positions as a young player before being drawn to the cage.
“I really was amazed by the goalkeeping position,” Van de Kerkhof says. “Not sure why. But eventually as I grew older, I became a goalkeeper and that was a lot of fun and I was able then to play for my first age-group teams.”
Van de Kerkhof has fond memories of his playing days, in which competition spanned across Europe. Travels led him from Germany and Belgium to tournaments in England and the Netherlands.
All the while, Van de Kerkhof appreciated coaching as a path in the sport.
“I always enjoyed coaching, working with little people,” Van de Kerkhof says. “When you are a young player, they want you to work with younger kids, and that’s how I got into coaching.”
This mentorship of younger participants enhances one’s own abilities as a player, the coaching veteran says.
“By having to coach or having an interest in coaching little people, that then strengthened your understanding as a player. What we have tried to do here at Delaware, too, the last 12, now 13 years, is help our players become their own coaches and look at it from different angles, different perspectives so they can grow in their understanding, and with that the application when that moment occurs [on the field].”
Under Van de Kerkhof, Delaware’s players have compiled far more winning moments than not.
Ascent to conference dominance
Since the turn of the 2010s, field hockey has been the most successful team sport at Delaware. The program marks a decade of dominating the CAA in 2023: Van de Kerkhof, since his December 2010 hiring, has overseen the Blue Hens’ five straight CAA tournament championships from 2013 to 2017. In 2016, the Hens took down an annual heavyweight in the University of North Carolina, 3-2, to capture the national title and cap a 23-2 season.
Upon arrival in Newark, Van de Kerkhof called Delaware “a sleeping giant” in field hockey. To wake it, though, required getting a sense of the players’ desires and working from there.
“The first thing I did is, I had meetings with all my players and asked them those questions,” Van de Kerkhof says. “‘What do you like?’ … ‘What do you think is not beneficial?’”
This was the first step in Van de Kerkhof’s vision for compromise with his players on the way to team growth.
“In order to grow, we have to have buy-in from everybody in that program,” Van de Kerkhof says. “We created that first. We also did an evaluation of the level, the understanding [of the game by the players], and it was not what I was used to. But as there was a gap, I had to make sure that I could not hold them to my standards, but we had to meet in the middle.
“We had to work toward each other.”
The CAA has witnessed Delaware’s fruits of that effort ever since. The Blue Hens, after falling to William & Mary in the 2018 conference championship game, have strung together four consecutive league tourney titles from 2019 to 2022.
“Our own little niche”
Delaware’s regular NCAA tournament appearances during Van de Kerkhof’s tenure, on paper, rival the rate of postseason trips by power-conference foes.
Van de Kerkhof, though, acknowledges that recruiting against that opposition remains tricky despite the Hens’ national championship stirring conversation about the program.
“It is not a secret that being an FCS [Football Championship Subdivision] school gives you some challenges because the best athletes in this country, and it looks like nowadays also from abroad, are not just looking at a [field hockey] program, they’re looking at the entire department,” Van de Kerkhof says.
Because most “can’t compare” Delaware with the football- or basketball-centric notoriety of North Carolina, Penn State and Maryland (all of which Van de Kerkhof identifies as competing recruiters), his objective is to accentuate what differentiates the defending CAA champions from the household names.
Van de Kerkhof says he pitches Delaware’s investment in field hockey, accommodating playing time, academic prowess and player development.
“We have created our own little niche,” the coach says.
In turn, Van de Kerkhof has positioned Delaware for continued success in what he calls a rich region for recruiting domestically–“the heart of hockey.”
Van de Kerkhof recognizes that the Blue Hens are “not always the best team,” he says. “But when the best hockey has to be played, Delaware is there.”