SALT LAKE CITY — It didn’t take long for Paola van der Veen to learn about the Utah-BYU rivalry even though she grew up 5,000 miles away in The Netherlands.
The Utes (1-2-1) and Cougars (2-2-1) will play their annual game Friday night before the usual packed house at Ute Field and van der Veen is excited to be playing in her fourth rivalry game.
I’ve been dreaming about playing soccer in the United States ever since I was 10. – Paola van der Veen
“Absolutely, for the fans this is their key game of the season and for us it’s so much fun to be out here and have a full crowd at Ute Field,” said van der Veen. “Our crowd is amazing and to play BYU at home in my senior year is something I really look forward to.”
Known as “Po” by her teammates and coaches, van der Veen is a senior leader on a team that has high expectations this season, despite a tough year in 2017 after reaching the NCAA Sweet 16 the previous year.
The 24-year-old came to Utah four years ago as one of the top players in her country, passing up offers from several other top schools such as UCLA and Florida State, and has loved her experience.
“I’ve been dreaming about playing soccer in the United States ever since I was 10,” she said after a recent Ute practice. “I went on visits to Utah and Boston College and when I got here it felt like home. The team and coaching staff gave me feeling I was super welcome here — they felt like family. It’s been an absolute blast – I’ve enjoyed every single moment so far.
After arriving at Utah, she immediately made an impression, earning Pac-12 All-Freshman honors, but had her second season cut short by a serious knee injury. Then last year, the midfielder led the team with eight goals, fourth-best in the Pac-12 and her 20 points were fifth-best in the league.
“She played Division 1 soccer in Europe and she brings that experience and soccer knowledge,” said Ute coach Rich Manning. “She’s really good technically, she sees the game, she can make that final pass to set up the scoring chance, she’s really good on set pieces — she has a lot of tools in her kit.”
Manning said van der Veen has made a lot of progress, particularly in becoming more physical and more fit.
“She came here to learn the mental and physical side of the game and she’s one of the fittest players on the team now,” he said. “She’s mentally tough and studies the game. That’s been the most pleasing thing to see her development, to see her mature as a player and a person.”
Van der Veen, who is majoring in film study, plans to graduate in December and would like to play professionally in England. Before that, she had high hopes for her team this year, beginning Friday night. Coming from a tight-knit family, including a twin sister back home who has played professionally, she said they’ll all be tuning the BYU game back in Holland.
“They’re going to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch the game,” she said.
As usual, the Utes will have a big challenge against the Cougars, who hold a 21-7-2 series advantage over the Utes. Both teams have lost twice already this year, but to good teams — BYU to No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 1 Stanford and the Utes to No. 19 Kansas and Minnesota.
Even though it isn’t a league game, Manning says playing BYU is one of the biggest games every year for his squad.
“It’s always a big deal, one of the best-attended games in the country every year,” he said. “We know there’s a spotlight on us, not only for our team but for the sport. This really serves us well for the conference to play in a game that’s this intense and this meaningful.”
After Saturday’s game, the Utes will play another in-state foe Monday when they travel to Logan to face Utah State in a 4 p.m. game.