By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nobody is ready to call Iowa freshman Dionne van Aalsum the Caitlin Clark of women’s college field hockey – at least not yet.
But that day could come if van Aalsum continues her incredible scoring streak that has helped to propel Iowa (4-0) to the No. 1 ranking nationally.
She has scored two goals in each of Iowa’s first four games, including a 3-2 victory over then top-ranked North Carolina on Aug. 27 in Chapel, North Carolina.
Iowa has scored 13 goals as a team and van Aalsum has eight of them.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It just happens,” said van Aalsum, who is from the Netherlands. “It’s just me putting in hard work and having the team also behind me.”
Iowa head coach Lisa Cellucci knows how to explain it.
“Her skill and her hockey IQ,” Cellucci said when asked to explain van Aalsum’s stat-sheet-stuffing start to the season. “First of all, she’s very tall and she’s really crafty with the ball, very creative. And she can hit her spot. And she’s been very opportunistic.”
Not since Caitlin Clark burst on the scene in 2020 as a sharpshooting, five-star point guard for the Iowa women’s basketball team has a Hawkeye freshman in a women’s sport made this kind of immediate impact.
“Early on, she’s doing something similar,” Cellucci said of the comparison to Clark. “(Two goals a game) would probably be close to 25 or 30 points in basketball. Most hockey games are three, four goals maybe, and that’s a big score.
“So, in tight games, two goals is really significant. And she’s done it against fantastic competition. So, we’re just really excited. We’re glad she’s on our team.”
From a recruiting standpoint, women’s college field hockey doesn’t garner nearly the attention as women’s college basketball.
So, when van Aalsum picked Iowa over some other elite programs, it didn’t make headlines like when Clark committed to Iowa.
But in field hockey recruiting, landing van Aalsum was a monumental victory for Cellucci and her staff because Iowa was getting someone that competed in the highest U18 youth league in the Netherlands in the 2022-2023 season, and that was captain for her indoor team that won the indoor championship of North Netherlands.
“We obviously heavily recruited her away from some other top schools,” Cellucci said. “But how she has been performing really honestly has exceeded expectations just to be able to come into a new program and new country and be able to perform like she has, has been fantastic.”
When asked if she has ever witnessed the offensive dominance that van Aalsum has shown in her first four games as a Hawkeye, Cellucci, a former Iowa goalie, had to go way back to four-time All-American Kristy Gleason, who is widely recognized as the greatest player in program history.
“Kristy Gleason, that would probably be it,” Cellucci said. “She averaged about three goals a game back in the early 90s, and that’s about it.”
The fact that Iowa has climbed to the top of the rankings has made van Aalsum’s start even more impressive because team success also helps to define individual greatness, with Caitlin Clark being an example of that.
“It’s really exciting,” van Aalsum said of being ranked No. 1 nationally.
With van Aalsum having had her pick of elite schools, she was very selective during the recruiting process as she evaluated her many scholarship offers.
She, of course, wanted to play for a championship-caliber program, but she also wanted to play where she felt comfortable and happy away from the playing field.
“I came here, and it just felt like a new family and they were real welcoming, and I think for me, it was real important to know I can trust people if the hockey level was good enough,” van Aalsum said. “I think that’s worth it all. It’s a good team and it’s exciting.”
There is always a risk when a freshman plays a starring role that it could lead to some resentment from the returning players.
But that hasn’t happened with van Aalsum because the ultimate goal as a team is to win, and her scoring has been the biggest key to Iowa’s success.
“Our team has rallied around her, hey, if you can score goals, let’s do it,” Cellucci said. “That’s what I think has really separated us so far. This team has played like a team because we know we’re going to need everybody because there’s going to come a time when she’s probably not going to score two goals.”
Typical of most foreign players, van Aalsum has had to adjust to the brutal summer heat and humidity in Iowa, which is different than the weather in her home country.
She was happy to feel the recent change in the weather in which the temperature has dropped to the 70s.
That was certainly the case on Wednesday afternoon as van Aalsum prepared for practice.
“This is more like it,” she said.
Cellucci said van Aalsum, who already twice has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week, was equipped to handle the heat because of her work ethic.
“The heat is a huge thing and she’s really acclimated well,” Cellucci said. “She was physically fit coming in, so that was fantastic.”
Foreign players also have to adjust to not necessarily the food, but to the amount of it.
“I can pick and choose what I want to eat, but it’s more like the portions here,” van Aalsum said. “It’s different than the Netherlands because in the Netherlands they’re just a lot smaller (portions).”
Hawkeye fans will have their first chance to see van Aalsum play at home when Iowa faces Central Michigan at 3 p.m. on Friday at Grant Field.
And while the players and coaches are thrilled to be ranked No. 1, Cellucci is taking steps to make sure they handle the pressure better than the last time it happened in 2021.
“It’s exciting. It’s motivating,” Cellucci said. “We’ve been here before, but we learned a lot from it the last time. In 2021 it was a lot of pressure and we felt it, and I think we looked too far ahead.
“So, what we’ve taken from this is, ‘hey, let’s enjoy it, but we’re going to keep it us versus us.”