When senior forward Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler arrived at Elon University in January 2015, he was not stepping into unfamiliar territory. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill transfer not only joined eager new teammates but also enjoyed a homecoming of sorts with close friends and family, like his mother and sister.
But the transition to a new school isn’t the only switch he’s making. He’s playing as the central striker for the Phoenix after playing most of his career as a winger or attacking midfield role.
“Becoming the focal point of the attack is a little bit different for me,” Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler said. “I’m usually trying to set the guys up and having a [striker] in front of me. Now being the guy who’s getting in the box and getting on the end of balls is different.”
All in the family
Despite playing a new position on the pitch, Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler can find comfort in knowing he’s walking the same campus as his mother Maureen and younger sister, Alex.
“I’m proud to have my kids [Cooper and Alex] here,” said Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, professor of psychology. “I think it speaks to the quality of our programming that so many faculty children are choosing us — it’s not just the tuition-free option, but I think people see the value of a small liberal arts university education.”
Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, a junior, was named one of the 15 students to win the 2015 Lumen Prize, Elon’s top academic award. She was mentored by Safia Swimelar, associate professor of political science and policy studies, for her project “Analyzing Women’s Post-War Narratives in Bosnia and Rwanda: Implications for Peacebuilding.”
Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler has been heavily involved in study abroad programs, including being a faculty member on trips to London, Florence, Italy, and Hawaii. Her daughter’s knowledge of all of Elon’s study abroad options played a big part in her decision to come to Elon.
“With Alex, we looked up and down the eastern seaboard. She probably looked at 20 different colleges,” Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler said. “At the end of the day I think she just saw the value in some of our programs at Elon.”
Maureen’s first job in academics was also in Hawaii, where she worked for the University of Hawaii at Hilo. She and her husband Russ Vandermaas-Peeler lived in Hilo for two years, where her son was born. With a new baby in the family, Maureen knew Hawaii was becoming impractical.
“We had this baby and we wanted the family to be able to meet him and know him,” she said. “We loved Hawaii but it was very expensive.”
Return to the mainland
The Vandermaas-Peelers returned to North Carolina and the family lived in Burlington when Maureen began working at Elon. It was the suggestion of Cooper’s kindergarten teacher and Elon soccer alumna Kelly Carrigan ’92 that started Cooper’s soccer career.
“I put [Cooper] in the car one day and she said [to me], ’You know Cooper is really good at soccer?’” Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler said. “I responded, ‘What, he’s only 5’ and she said, ‘If you hurry you can get him on a team.’
“We got him on a team and, from that moment on, he loved it.”
The Vandermaas-Peelers moved to Cary, North Carolina, where Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler was exposed to different soccer opportunities. It was there where U.S. Men’s National Team coaches spotted Cooper and called him up for a match with the U-18 team against Germany in Israel in December 2010.
Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler opened the scoring in the 62nd minute, but the Germans scored a pair of late goals to claim the victory. Cooper found value in the experience, even in defeat.
“It’s just a dream,” he said. “Obviously to wear the badge of the United States is awesome. Any kind of chance to represent your country is awesome. I’m just glad I could help the team by scoring the goal that day. It was a phenomenal experience to see other cultures and how they live.”
Making connections both near and far
On top of his mother teaching at Elon and his sister already enrolled, Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler had another familiar face waiting for him at Elon: senior defender Nathan Diehl. The two were recruited by UNC the same year and Diehl lived with Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler before transferring to Elon after his freshman year.
While the mild-mannered Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler and charismatic Diehl may seem like an odd match, Diehl said the two are extremely close.
“We’re very similar in how we act when we’re away from the field,” Diehl said. He added the two are always spending time together, whether it’s playing FIFA or playing with Vandermaas-Peeler’s new dog Thor, a 5-month-old mixed-breed puppy rescued from the Burlington Police Animal Shelter.
Diehl said Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler’s favorite player is Rudd van Nistelrooy, a former Manchester United and Dutch national team striker. Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler’s father came to the United States by boat from Holland where he met Maureen’s mother and married just a few years later. Being the grandson of an immigrant, Maureen said her son is strongly influenced by the European connection.
“I definitely want to emulate my style off of those guys and I still watch the Dutch every time they play,” Cooper said. “It’s not a coincidence to see some tendencies overlap there.”
Cooper’s European influence is hard to miss for those with an eye for soccer tactics. He plays like a traditional Dutch center forward who’d fit the mold for the “Total Football” system, which has become synonymous with Dutch soccer.
The system calls for versatile players in all positions. The idea is that during the flow of the match, players will be drawn in and out of position, so the players need to be able to not only do the duties of their starting position, but also those of whichever position they may be occupying at that time. As a result, movement is equally key. Vandermaas-Peeler is constantly looking for pockets of space to exploit the opposing defense, or making runs that draw defenders to him and thus create space for one of his teammates to exploit.
Cooper said his favorite aspect of “Total Football” is that it allows a team to remain in control of the game throughout the match.
“Even if you don’t have the ball, you press and trap [your opponent] in places where you want them to have the ball so they’re not dictating the game, as opposed to if you drop in and sit back they can impose their will on you,” he said.