A year ago, Chelsea Neff and Alysia Hough got a taste of their first collegiate championship with the University at Albany field hockey program.
After missing out on a title by a mere goal in their freshmen year of college, the pair of Lehighton field hockey alumni were able to cap their sophomore seasons with an America East Conference Tournament title last year. The Great Danes' 2-1 victory over University of New Hampshire was the program's first-ever AEC title.
For Neff and Hough, it was another field hockey accolade to add to the list of ones they had accomplishment at the high school level. As members of the powerhouse Indian field hockey program, the pair were part of four consecutive Mountain Valley Conference championships and two District 11 titles.
This season, the number of Lehighton alumni at Albany has grown by one as Kristi Troch has joined Neff and Hough in New York. This weekend, the freshman goalie has a chance to be part of something that Neff and Hough weren't able to accomplish an American East Conference championship in her first year at Albany.
Neff, Hough, Troch, along with the rest of the University at Albany team, will enter the America East Tournament as the No. 1 seed. The Great Danes (12-4-0 overall, 4-1-0 in conference play) will host the tournament for the second year in a row.
It's an opportunity Troch is glad to have, especially after missing out on a Mountain Valley Conference and District 11 Class AA championship in her senior season with Lehighton.
"I'm very excited about this weekend. We have been working hard all year (for this)," said Troch, who saw action in 16 games this season. "We're all prepared for what we have coming along and we want nothing more than a repeat from last year.
"The bar was already set very high from winning last year and it hasn't gone down since last year. If anything, it has gone higher. So, I'm very excited to be part of this team and possibly go on and win another championship."
In order to get the chance to even defend the program's first-ever American East Tournament title, the Great Danes need to get by the tourney's No. 4 seed, the University of New Hampshire. It's the same Wildcats' team that spoiled a perfect regular season for the Great Danes with a season-ending 2-1 loss back on October 31st.
Great Danes' midfielder Hough, who was a four-year varsity starter in high school, said that the loss may have served a purpose for the conference tournament, which starts today with Albany taking on New Hampshire in the first game of the afternoon doubleheader at 1 p.m. Shortly afterwards, No. 2 seeded Boston University will take on No. 3 seeded Maine.
"Losing to them, wasn't necessarily a bad thing, because it served as an eye-opener for what we need to accomplish this weekend," said Hough, who played in all 16 games and started three of them while compiling two goals and an assist. "So, in a way, it wasn't necessarily a horrible thing that we lost."
Neff is simply glad to be back in the tournament again and to have the advantage of playing it on Albany's Alumni Turf Field.
"We practice there every single day," said Neff, who played in every game and started one of them for the Great Danes. "We know how it plays. We get to sleep in our own rooms. We have our own fans that come out to every single game. So, it's definitely nice to have home field advantage on our side."
Albany coach Phil Sykes, who is in his sixth year as head of the program, stated another tournament championship would "be huge" for the program. But, it's something he would like to see happen once again for the whole University of Albany campus.
"We're kind of a unique university that at a lot of schools it's basically football, basketball and everybody else. At our school, our Athletic Director does a fantastic job – and if you do well in your sport, you get recognized," said Sykes, who's program is ranked 16th in the nation according to Kookaburra/NFHCA Division I National Coaches' Poll. "The last three years, we have been ranked higher nationally than any other program at our school. The girls walk around campus and they're known. People say,"Ah, you're on the field hockey team. You guys are awesome."
"We created that image and it helps with our reputation for recruiting and in so many other ways."