BY MICHAEL KELLY
ALBANY — The postseason is nearing for the University at Albany field hockey team, which has put together another strong campaign on the heels of its historic season a year ago.
There’s plenty of local flavor with the Great Danes team, too as the squad’s roster includes four players from Section II high schools, including a pair from Shenendehowa: sophomore Anna Bottino and freshman Melissa Nealon.
Head coach Phil Sykes, who lives in Clifton Park, said the opportunity to sprinkle local players within his roster has been a major boon for his program.
“It’s been huge for us,” said Sykes, whose team will add current Shenendehowa senior Emily Fraser to its roster for the 2016 season. “We get to know the kid and the parents we’re going to get.”
That formula has helped UAlbany to new levels of success. The squad finished 20-3 last year and earned the school’s first-ever appearance to a Final Four. Bottino played a major role for that team; the midfielder started 22 of the team’s 23 games, scored 11 goals, and registered four assists.
“She did really well in her first year here, but she was finding her way, too,” Sykes said of Bottino, who earned a spot earlier this year on the U-21 USA junior national team.
This year, Bottino has stepped up even more for a UAlbany squad ranked No. 10 in the country and sitting with a 13-2 record through a 2-1 win Tuesday against Cornell. In those 15 games, Bottino has scored eight goals and collected seven assists, showing off an increased skill set from a year ago that she spent her offseason fine-tuning.
“There’s little parts of my game I definitely picked apart, and I always want to improve on things like my first touch in the circle,” Bottino said. “Overall, though, my goal is to have a positive presence on the field and really help the team on the offensive end.”
Off the field, Bottino has also worked to help the team’s newcomers feel at ease with their new surroundings — like Nealon, her Shenendehowa-turned-UAlbany teammate.
“It’s been pretty awesome getting to play next to Nealon and spend time with her 24/7 again,” Bottino said. “I can’t wait for [Fraser] to come in, too. It’s nice having people here that really know you.”
Bottino’s on-field work with Nealon has been limited to the practice field. As a freshman, Nealon has not seen game action in 2015. That was not totally unexpected for Nealon, who is the backup to goalie Maxi Primus, a junior standout.
“I knew with Maxie — she’s such a great goalie — that if I did get playing time this year, it wouldn’t be at the caliber of play I’d want to see,” Nealon said.
Her coach is not necessarily sure that’s true. While Nealon has not played this season, Sykes said she has been the best backup his program has ever had under his direction. He said, too, that this season will likely count as a redshirt year for Nealon because of her lack of playing time; the designation would allow Nealon an extra year of playing eligibility past her academic senior year.
“This is the first time we’ve had two really good goalies,” Sykes said. “And, if we can get [Nealon] an extra year of schooling and playing … I think that’s advantageous for both of them.”
“Schoolwise, it’ll be great, too, if I do [a redshirt],” said Nealon, who is studying human biology.
UAlbany’s regular season comes to a close Nov. 1 with a game against UMass Lowell. The postseason begins Nov. 5 with the America East tournament.
After that, UAlbany will look to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament. But as fun as it might be to dream about another trip to the Final Four, looking ahead to those one-and-done games is not on the to-do list for UAlbany.
“We’re a game-by-game kind of team,” Bottino said.