Fielder's Choice

Britt Vonk Left High School to Play Softball, a Decision That Eventually Brought Her to Cal

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When Britt Vonk was 17 years old, she had a chance to play softball in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But she was torn. Now the Cal softball team's starting shortstop, Vonk had one year left in high school and needed to choose between graduating on time and representing her country.

If the thick Dutch accent and bright blond hair didn't give it away, Vonk hails from Holland - a place where athletics are not as integrated into the school systems. Prospective pro athletes have to make significant sacrifices to their education. Collegiate competition does not exist.

"If I wanted to play professional softball, I just had to leave my schoolwork a little bit behind," Vonk says. "That didn't work out really well. I hated it."

In July of 2005, a secret vote in Singapore eliminated both softball and baseball from the 2012 Olympic slate in London, marking the first sports eliminated since 1936.

It would be Vonk's only opportunity to participate in the Olympics - she knew she could not pass it up.

"Even though I wanted that diploma so bad, I knew that I could finish (school) any time I wanted," she says.

Her teachers thought she was crazy. They just didn't understand why anyone would quit high school.

Nevertheless, she committed to representing the Netherlands at the Games in August 2008.

As the youngest player in the Dutch delegation, Vonk did not receive the warmest welcome from the other players.

Some of her teammates were born in the late '70s. Vonk was born in 1991. While the final Olympic roster was being solidified, tension built up between the players - most of it geared towards the girl who wasn't even old enough for a driver's license.

But she had enough talent to compete for anyone's place on the roster.

"When I knew that I had the opportunity to play in the Olympics, I didn't care what other people thought of me," Vonk says. "I would have done anything to get that spot."

The 5-foot-7 left-handed batter earned her stripes, not only making the squad but also securing a starting spot at second base. The adversity she faced from her teammates eventually subsided.

It was a time that bore a testament to her seven years of playing softball and her experience with track and field.

Sports had always been a significant part of her life. Her mother, Tanja Reijerink, played professional water polo in the Netherlands. Her father, Theo Vonk, played professional soccer and now coaches in the Netherlands. Her two half-brothers also play pro soccer.

"She just possesses a lot of good skill," Cal coach Diane Ninemire says. "She has a quick release, she's got a strong arm and good range. She has all of the intangibles that you would be looking for."

However, both she and her team struggled in Beijing.

After seven games, Vonk finished with just a single hit in 12 at-bats. The Dutch team closed its Olympic tournament with one victory, a 4-2 win over Chinese Taipei, finishing in eighth place.

Despite the disappointing finish, it was a surreal time for such a young athlete, a blur of emotion-filled moments that whipped past her. Because she made her Olympic debut at such a young age, she considered herself too young to really understand what it meant to be there.

"If I could turn back time, I would do it because I would experience it way different," she says. "I didn't even think about it, like, 'I am in the Olympics.' It is just weird. If I could turn back time, I would do it right away."

Following her stint in China, the shortstop returned to the Netherlands to finish up her last year of high school. She also needed to make plans about where softball would lead her after graduation.

She had known for a while that she wanted to go to the United States for college, since American schools did not force her to decide between books and bats. The question was, whose colors would she wear?

Light blue and white for North Carolina? Maize and blue for Michigan?

A little bit of luck had Vonk donning blue and gold.

Kaleo Eldredge was one of Vonk's old club coaches. She played center field for the Bears under Ninemire and was a part of the 2002 national championship team. Eldredge had already filled Vonk's ears with stories about life in Berkeley.

What she learned, along with her own research on the school, grounded her decision. She had heard about American universities and liked that she could go to school and play ball at the same time. Vonk couldn't pass up the academic prestige that coupled so well with her love for school.

Now, as a freshman living in Clark Kerr - over 5,500 miles from her hometown of Enschede in eastern Holland - she has had an explosive first season as Cal's first international softball player.

"I am starting," she says of her accomplishments on the team thus far. "I worked my ass off to get there."

She leads the team in batting average (.488) and is sixth in the Pac-10 halfway through the preseason. Her .588 on-base percentage also puts her at fourth in the conference.

"Her batting average is outstanding right now, but really, what is so unbelievable, is that it could be so much more," Ninemire says. "There is so much more that's there. It is hard to say where she will end up."

With so much potential in the next couple seasons and plans to play professionally in Japan in the future, she is just living and learning at Cal right now.

Finally, she doesn't have to choose anymore.


Kelly Suckow covers softball. Contact her at [email protected]

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