How Albany Joined The Big Dogs Of NCAA Field Hockey

Albany had never won a game in the NCAA field hockey tournament before this season, but shocked Maryland in the national quarterfinals. Next up: defending champion UConn. Beth Strauss

The numbers were just too daunting for Albany field hockey coach Phil Sykes to stress over, so he chose to ignore them.

Maybe that's why his team is -- against all odds -- in this weekend's final four.

Albany's NCAA tournament quarterfinal opponent, Maryland, had advanced to 20 straight national tournaments -- a streak that began in 1995, one year after field hockey started at Albany. The Terrapins had the most wins in the history of the national tournament with 55, had lost only one of 23 tournament games played on their home field and boasted the No. 1 offense in the nation.

Then there's the fact Maryland has amassed eight national titles.

Maryland is field hockey's big dog, but consider Albany's team is called the Great Danes. They had never won an NCAA tournament game before this year and had never beaten Maryland. But these Great Danes were ready to prove they can bite.

Instead of watching game film on the Terps, the unseeded underdogs stuck to their video standbys. "Pitch Perfect" is a favorite, with players singing along, and "The Hunger Games" helped pass the seven-hour bus ride to College Park, Maryland.

"If we watched Maryland on film, our kids would have freaked out because they're awesome," Sykes said. "If we looked at their skill level, their experience, we'd have thought they'd crush us. So we stayed away from that. We stayed away from their name and their status."

The payoff came in one of the sport's biggest upsets, when Albany stunned host Maryland 2-1 last Sunday to earn a spot in the final four. The Great Danes scored the upset in College Park, and this weekend they will be back on that same field to contend for a national title.

Albany (20-3) meets defending national champion Connecticut (18-3) at 4:45 p.m. Friday at the Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex. Preceding that game will be the first semifinal featuring six-time national champion North Carolina (19-3) against Syracuse (17-6) at 2 p.m.

The winners advance to Sunday's 1 p.m. national championship game.

"The important thing that sets us apart is our chemistry," said Amy Nicklin, a senior midfielder from Cheshire, England. "With this team, you know someone is going to have your back every step of the way. The confidence and trust we have in each other pulls us through."

Boasting about chemistry isn't uncommon for championship-caliber teams. But the Great Danes pride themselves in being particularly loose despite the stakes. Nicklin jokes about the coaching staff being "a family that's not quite right."

"You have your uncles and your aunts and your dad who make sure everything stays in check," she said. "Then you've got the other side that just wants to have a laugh. Every day is different with this group. They know how to have fun."

In addition to movies, there's the pyramid the team builds before every game in the locker room, and firing themselves up to Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel" pregame.

"But they also know how to push us, too," Nicklin noted. "Dealing with 17 women can be difficult for anyone."

After a year as interim coach at Cornell, Sykes adopted a different philosophy than many of his counterparts related to camaraderie. At Cornell, he struggled to keep 30 women focused on one goal. A few quit; others didn't feel a part of the large squad.

It's not uncommon for field hockey rosters to have 25 or more players. Sykes keeps no more than 18.

"At Albany we don't do the redshirt thing and have the fifth year," he said. "We make them feel like they can contribute right away. We tell our freshmen, 'If you earn a spot, you're playing.' A good portion of our team plays right away, and I think that is a drawing card."

Initially, Sykes didn't have much to sell in the capital city on the banks of the Hudson River, where soccer and lacrosse were preferred. "We had some fantastic kids, but our skill level wasn't there," said Sykes, whose team won seven games when he took over in 2004. "We were one of the five worst Division I teams when I got here."

Back then, the Great Danes didn't have a field to call their own. Sometimes the team practiced at Skidmore College or Union College -- each close to an hour bus ride away through some less-than-idyllic parts of town.

Sykes studied every Top 20 team, noting the ratio of international kids. "How can we get there?" he asked himself.

His own decorated background in the sport -- Sykes played on the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 -- helped with connections, allowing him to recruit from Holland and Australia. Nabbing British recruit Michelle Simpson -- who went on to become a two-time All-American at the school -- was huge.

Though bigger schools recruited Simpson, Sykes realized the major schools hadn't been that aggressive. "I got on a plane, met with her and told her she would be the face of the team," he said.

Today, Simpson is an assistant coach who has helped recruit the crop of athletes that has put Albany two wins shy of an NCAA title. Among them: the German trifecta -- sophomore midfielder Paula Heuser (29 goals, 11 assists), freshman forward Pahila Arnold (6 goals, 6 assists) and sophomore keeper Maxi Primus (10 shutouts) all start for the first team from Albany to advance to the NCAA semifinals in any sport. Some are drawing comparisons to "The Thompson Trio," three Native Americans at Albany who became the face of college lacrosse last spring.

"I think we're as good as the Thompson Trio," Heuser said. "Not as much media, but we're just as good in our sport."

Then there's junior midfielder Laura Page, who holds the single-season assist mark with 25. Don't forget Fiori Van Rijswijk anchoring a poised defense that held the nation's top offense to one goal in the quarterfinals -- scored after Maryland pulled its keeper with eight minutes remaining.

Albany went unbeaten at home at Alumni Turf Field, won its fourth America East crown and shut out NCAA quarterfinalist Stanford and 2012 national champion Princeton en route to the most storied season in their history.

The Great Danes could add another chapter should they defeat UConn.

"I'm going to tell them, 'It's just another game,'" Sykes said. "We're going to play defense. We're going to worry about ourselves and the things we can control. If we stay calm and stick to our strengths, good things can happen."