ALBANY — A new era starts Sunday for the UAlbany women’s soccer program, as the Great Danes will play their first game with head coach Leigh Howard at the helm.
Howard’s first game, a 2 p.m. matchup at St. John’s, comes more than a year after she was hired to replace Nick Bochette, who left the Great Danes to become the head coach at Temple. While the pandemic moved UAlbany’s soccer season from the fall to the spring and certainly made for an odd first year for Howard as the Great Danes’ coach, senior goalie Andrea Leitner said UAlbany feels comfortable and ready ahead of its first game since a 3-2 loss to Hartford in the 2019 America East Conference tournament.
“I think having new leadership has been great for us,” Leitner said. “We’re excited for them to finally see us play a real game.”
UAlbany was picked to finish in third place in the America East ahead of this season. This season’s team is almost exclusively made up of players that Bochette recruited, and Howard said she plans to lean on the program’s veterans. Leitner and senior Hailey Summers are key to guiding the Great Danes’ defense, while juniors Jada Colbert and Jasmine Colbert — who each scored five goals in the 2019 season — will lead the offense.
“Certainly from an attacking standpoint, it’s hard to ignore, and it’s hard to want to adjust too much, the impact of the Colbert twins,” said Howard, who arrived at UAlbany after two seasons at Marist.
The team has intriguing freshmen, as well. Niskayuna High School graduate Olivia Piraino, Howard said, is likely to earn a start in her first college game, and the new head coach also offered praise for how Stillwater High School graduate Brooke Pickett — who led her high school team to a pair of Class C state championships — has progressed during the team’s preseason that started Feb. 1.
“Brooke has come in so far with a great attitude and tends to absorb everything we have to offer, like a sponge,” Howard said.
That type of mindset has been needed. Pickett said it’s been an adjustment moving from starring at a smaller high school to competing for playing time on a Division I squad. She’s liked, though, how her team has readied for this weekend’s action.
“The intensity has definitely been pushed higher these past few weeks,” Pickett said.
Sunday’s game is also the first of the season for St. John’s, which is led by redshirt senior Zsani Kajan, the reigning Big East Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Summers said the Great Danes know they need to stay together in their season opener.
“I think just keeping in the right mindset, staying motivated and staying connected to one another,” Summers said of what’s important for UAlbany in its first game. “Super odd and weird time to be playing [since it’s February], but we have each other to fall back on if one of us is struggling.”