Pinoké’s faith in youth brings landmark EHL into view

When Pinoké hit the Wagener Stadium turf on Thursday evening against Racing Club de Bruxelles (19.00 CET), it will mark another landmark moment in their developing identity.

For many years, they were also-ran in the Hoofdklasse, oscillating between fifth and eleventh place, sometimes dicing with the playout games, until a bold philosophy saw them make the big jump.

Morris de Vilder, now 26, grew up at Pinoké, starting at age 5 and rose up the ranks to reach the first team when he was 17. It coincided with the genesis of new plans within the club to change their approach to Hoofdklasse success.

“Eight or nine years back, we decided to build a team around guys from our own youth and a lot of Dutch guys,” he explained to the EHL website. 

“We had a team with a lot of foreigners and people from the club didn’t really recognise the players on the pitch. We wanted to change that identity.”

The strategy was fraught with risk, needing a shoot-out win over Nijmegen in 2018 to confirm their place in the Dutch top tier in the play-out series.

But there was faith shown by the club in the young guns and that faith would eventually bear fruit. Pinoké improved year on year, going to eighth, then fifth and then a first ever playoff appearance last season, finishing as national runners-up to Bloemendaal.

They did it a panel consisting of homegrown talents like de Vilder, Miles and Texas Bukkens, Pieter and Lukas Sutorius, Marlon Landbrug, Joppe Stapenbelt and Gijs van Wagenburg

“If you make a team way younger than it used to be with no experience, you need to learn a lot. You have to give it some time. It was a bold move and it could have ended up differently. 

“But with time and experience, the younger guys like me could develop well, get to know each other well and get used to the big man league.”

Texas Bukkens agrees, adding: “When you want to be top four, you have two ways to do it – Do you want to bring players from different countries or invest in your young players? The club backed us to try and grow slowly.

“There was interest from other clubs and it was tough for guys to make that call and say ‘f**k it, we are going to make this happen with Pinoké!’

“Like with Derck de Vilder who was pushing to go for the national team; we weren’t that good so he made the decision to go to Kampong.”

Morris de Vilder. Picture: Willem Vernes/World Sport Pics

Morris agrees: “We all had attention from other clubs but we were together, grew up in the club and knew we had the talent within ourselves but needed to give it time. We told each other ‘if we stay together, believe in it, it will work in the end’. We had faith in ourselves and the club had faith in us. 

“The thing is we love Pinoké. The club is my second home for years. The nicest thing is to help my club, the thing I love, to reach the playoffs for the first time. It was way more important for me than to play for Kampong or Bloemendaal or whatever.”

Both hail the input of the coaching team with Jesse Mahieu and, more recently, his assistant Craig Sieben have helped realise the philosophy.

“It doesn’t happen often that a coach stays this long at a club,” de Vilder said. “He knows the place really well having played here himself. He knows the identity of Pinoké really well and it helps with the results.”

And they took to the EHL last October in the KO16 like a duck to water, easing by Slavia Prague before getting the better of English champions Old Georgians 4-0. It opened up this special opportunity to host the EHL, one which the club is relishing being a part of.

“It’s unbelievable that we enter the EHL for the first time and we can host it as well,” de Vilder adds. “As a club, it is incredibly nice. You can feel it all around – as soon as you enter the club, you see EHL flags and banners everywhere. I am really proud of it. To be able to give this to the club and be part of it is really special.”

Bukkens’ parents are among the army of volunteers helping to get things in place, helping to make this “the best EHL to ever happen” in his words.

Texas Bukkens. Picture: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pics

With their heightened level does come greater expectation and results have been mixed since the start of 2023 for Pinoké in the Dutch league.

But neither player expects that to carry through to their date with Racing.

“Of course you feel more expectation,” Bukkens says. “We have faith in the team. The last few games, we weren’t taking every point that we could but when we work together, we will make it anyway. It’s a big part of the last two years – you have to have faith every game, every day, to grow.”

De Vilder is more emphatic: “For us, I think we can win against everyone in the whole world. We believe a lot in ourselves; no worries about that.”