Commentary

Britt Vonk travels to find success at Cal

Originally Published: May 18, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

If California freshman shortstop Britt Vonk has anything to say about it, the Women's College World Series could soon come considerably closer to living up to the often-under-represented third word in its name.

[+] EnlargeBritt Vonk
GoldenBearSports.comCal shortstop Britt Vonk was just 17 when she played for the Dutch national team in the 2008 Olympics.

Global is about the only way to describe a route to Oklahoma City that stretches from Amsterdam to Beijing and the Bay Area.

The Pac-10 is fond of touting itself as the best softball conference in the country, a reputation only bolstered by four member schools combining to win the past five national championships. In all, the league owns 22 NCAA titles, suggesting that like so many other crops dependent on dirt, grass and the vagaries of weather for success, softball found fertile footing in the West and boomed. The region shares its bounty -- rare is the roster in Division I that doesn't include at least a player or two from Arizona or California. But for Pac-10 teams, it means there is little need to look beyond their own borders -- just 17 players currently listed on the league's eight rosters are from states not home to a member school, including just eight players from map points east of the Mississippi River.

The University of California is no exception. From a roster of 19 players plying their trade in Berkeley this season, 17 come from California, while another player's Nevada hometown is about 20 miles east of the state line. But as the Bears look to get back to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2005 and become the first team other than Arizona or UCLA to win multiple national championships since the college pitching distance was set at 43 feet before the 1988 season, success might hinge on a player who has twice trekked halfway around the globe to compete against the best it has to offer.

Now in her first college season half a world away from her hometown of Enschede, a city about 100 miles east of Amsterdam, Vonk was just 17 when she became the youngest member of the Dutch national team that competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. And just as she wasted little time making an impression on the international stage, going from a surprise inclusion on the Dutch team to the leadoff batter when the team took the field for its first game of the tournament in China, she didn't waste any time establishing herself as a potential All-American, so to speak.

As California travels to the Louisville regional as the No. 7 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, Vonk is hitting .414 with a .514 on-base percentage and 25 stolen bases as the full-time starter at shortstop.

"She has taken a very big responsibility, especially playing in the Pac-10, which is the best conference in the country for softball," said California junior third baseman Jace Williams. "She has really embraced her role and shown leadership. Offensively, she is so fast -- she just puts the bat on ball, does her job, makes the opposing defense work, and she really makes things happen for us."

Perhaps the only endeavor in which she has been less than entirely successful is making the Bears bilingual.

"We're always asking her to teach us words," Williams said. "We have cheers, like when we break between innings, we'll do some Dutch cheers. … It's just hard because their language, it doesn't come out naturally for us. They have some sounds that are really hard to pronounce. None of us can really make it sound right."

Then again, considering her teammates didn't even know her nine months ago, let alone her language, the exchange program is going rather well.

Vonk grew up around sports in the Netherlands, her father and older brother involved in professional soccer and her mother a former water polo player. But she didn't grow up dreaming of playing softball in the Pac-10, even after she discovered the sport by way of friends and found she enjoyed the team dynamic more than the individual rhythms of track and field, an earlier pursuit. It wasn't until she was 14 years old and a visiting American coach told her that sports and higher education in the United States were intertwined to the extent that a person could pursue both that, in fact, playing softball could be a means to attending college. For someone who had to put high school on hold for a year just to have an opportunity to play in the Olympics -- the last in which softball would be contested -- that was an appealing-enough proposition that two years after returning from Beijing, she found herself again packing for a trip.

"I knew that the San Francisco area here looked a lot like home, like Europe, kind of, so I thought that was very important," Vonk said of narrowing her choice of schools down to California. "I honestly didn't really know a lot about it softballwise, but I knew that they played Pac-10, and I knew that was a good conference."

So it was that she found herself on a flight longer even than the one from Amsterdam to Beijing, having neither met her new teammates nor ever visited the Bay Area. (She had spent time in the United States and Canada on previous softball tours.) To make matters just that much more challenging, the timing was something less than ideal. Because of playing commitments back home, Vonk arrived at Cal with all of a day to spare before classes began.

Imagine the blue of freshman orientation. Now add in the jet lag of a nine-hour time difference and a bunch of college freshmen speaking very excitedly in a language that is not your first.

"In the beginning it was weird because I was like walking by myself on campus and I was like, 'What am I doing here? I don't know anything,'" Vonk said.

Her teammates, on the other hand, had no such existential dilemmas about their new shortstop.

"I knew she was fast, but I didn't know she was that fast," Williams recalled. "She's very fast and very athletically -- [she's] built like an athlete. … I mean, she has a 12-pack, so she's incredibly strong, fast, agile, quick. She's just very, very athletic. I knew she had to be a great athlete, but she's a specimen."

Off the field, there wasn't a moment when the heavens parted and everything made sense. Instead, after perhaps a month, she just found herself gradually feeling more at ease, enough faces familiar instead of foreign to make her feel less like a stranger in a strange land. Tutors helped her adjust academically. Teammates took care of the rest.

[+] EnlargeBritt Vonk
GoldenBearSports.comVonk, in her first season at Cal, is hitting .414 for the Golden Bears.

"She opened up really quick because she's not shy once you know her," Williams said.

The food remains a bit of a sticking point. Even in a place known as one of the centers of the "Slow Food" movement in the United States, she finds the native cuisine a little too unhealthy compared to the fare at home. On the other hand, the "hippie style" ubiquitous to Berkeley, if not most campuses, is a fashion choice she thinks she can embrace.

After a super regional appearance last season, Cal appeared in danger of slipping back to the pack when All-American pitcher/first baseman Valerie Arioto was sidelined by an injury before this season began. Vonk is a different type of offensive player than Arioto, who led the Bears with 19 home runs and 81 walks a season ago, but just as sophomore pitcher Jolene Henderson picked up the slack in the circle, Vonk's emergence gave the Bears a much-needed lift at the plate to complement Williams and outfielder Jamia Reid. Far from slipping, they won five more conference games than a season ago and claimed sole possession of second place. The run even included a three-game sweep against UCLA, the first for Cal against the 11-time NCAA champions since 1998.

All of which means about as much back home as football club Twente Enschede finishing second in the Dutch Eredivisie means in Berkeley. "If I talk to friends back home, I tell them, 'We swept UCLA,' and they're like, "Oh, who is UCLA?' They don't know," Vonk lamented.

At least when it comes to softball, it seems the world remains a vast place. All the better for a speedy shortstop with a charming accent and a willingness to explore.

"I didn't want this year to be over, actually," Vonk sad. "It's going so fast I wish it was longer than four years, actually. It's an amazing experience so far."

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.