BY MICHAEL KELLY
ALBANY — For the “First Couple” of Capital Region field hockey, Sunday was a bit unusual.
ADK Field Hockey, the area’s top club for the sport, had two of its teams play one another in the Wicked Smart Northeast Field Hockey League at the University at Albany. That should have been odd enough, as the U19 game marked the first time the organization had two of its teams play one another in an official game in its six-year existence.
The coaching matchup, though, took the prize for strangest happening of the day: ADK director Jen Sykes coached one team, while Phil Sykes led the other.
Just a standard husband vs. wife coaching matchup.
“This [was] a little different,” said Phil Sykes, who is set to begin his 12th season as the University at Albany field hockey coach this fall.
It is the differences between the two that have helped to shape ADK into a field hockey force that competes — and wins — on the national stage, while helping to produce dozens of players who go on to the NCAA ranks and several who compete for U.S. national squads.
Phil Sykes, 44, competed in the Olympics in the sport before becoming a college coach and transforming UAlbany field hockey into one of the top programs in the America East Conference, where he is a three-time honoree as Coach of the Year. Meanwhile, Jen Sykes, 40, played both field hockey and lacrosse for East Stroudsburg University, a Division II competitor, before coaching lacrosse at both the college and high school levels. The couple lives in Clifton Park, where Jen Sykes coaches and teaches at Shenendehowa.
With help from Michelle Simpson and Andy Thornton, Jen Sykes and Phil Sykes run ADK together — “I basically just tell Phil what to do,” Jen Sykes joked — and use their differing backgrounds to help the 125 players in the program improve and find the college level most appropriate for them.
“They really know how to help all of us,” said Elise Zwicklbauer, a rising senior at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake who will play collegiately for the University of Richmond and is playing this summer for ADK’s top U19 team.
“Together,” Zwicklbauer added, “they are a perfect duo.”
The pair became one about 15 years ago when they started to date after meeting at a wedding, a relationship initially maintained despite him living in California and her in Pennsylvania. They married in 2007, a couple of years after moving to New York.
Field hockey has always been a common link between the two, and they have helped to turn the Capital Region into one of the sport’s emerging hotbeds for talent. Players such as Clifton Park’s Anna Bottino and Niskayuna’s Carrie Hanks are both ADK alums who have gone on to play for U.S. national teams, while current ADK player Emily Fraser has also made a national squad.
Fraser, a rising senior at Shenendehowa, started playing with ADK as a seventh-grader, and said she owes a great deal of her success to the club.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like without ADK, without having that opportunity to play all year against high-level competition,” Fraser said. “It’s really given us all a chance to play at the highest level, and gotten us exposure to colleges.”
Last year, all 27 members of the program’s senior class went on to play in college, and Jen Sykes — who coaches varsity girls’ lacrosse and modified field hockey at Shenendehowa — said all of this year’s senior squad has matched that feat.
Helena Masiello is a member of this year’s small senior class. Masiello graduated in June from Columbia and will head off next month to Georgetown University to start her collegiate field hockey career. She played for her mother, Dottie Masiello, in high school, but Helena Masiello credited Jen Sykes and Phil Sykes for the confidence she has in herself that she is ready to play at the NCAA level.
“They really push you to be better,” Masiello said. “They’re so experienced and they help give you a lot of skills you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Phil Sykes’ team won Sunday’s game — the “Sykes Showdown” as his wife coined it before it started. The couple bantered a bit during the game, and once came together mid-second half to discuss some of the players’ progress while action continued in front of them. Between the couple, the game did not represent heated competition.
Even so, Phil Sykes had posited before the game that he’d likely spend Sunday night on the couch if his team won.
Jen Sykes said her husband’s take was an optimistic one.
“There’s a tent outside,” she said.