Thirteen-year-old Heidi Zahnleuter wasn’t aware of all the opportunities the ADK Field Hockey Club provided when she joined last winter. The youngster from Clifton Park said she was just looking to have some fun and sharpen her skills for her upcoming freshman season at Emma Willard.
“I did not know that,” said Zahnleuter, after hearing that the club’s entire senior class will be playing field hockey at the collegiate level. “It makes me want to work harder. When I practice, I’ll have that in the back of my head.”
Player exposure is a big part of the package the club offers. Its teams not only play locally and in regional competition, but at the national level, as well.
“The first few years the older girls were getting some looks,” said ADK and University at Albany coach Phil Sykes, whose wife, Jen, is the club’s director of operations. “Now our 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds are getting looks. It’s been exciting to see it explode.”
“It’s the best thing to happen in the Capital Region for field hockey,” said recent Shenendehowa graduate and UAlbany-bound Anna Bottino, who’ll join her under-19 teammates in a senior recognition game next week. “ADK is one of the top clubs in the nation now, and it started from nothing.”
ADK will soon be wrapping up its fifth cycle under the Sykes and their staff of college coaches. Each cycle includes winter and spring/summer sessions for girls in three age groups.
The club has grown in numbers over those five years from just over two dozen players to well over 100. The schedule has become more ambitious, too, with ADK last year joining the highly competitive Wicked Smart North East Field Hockey League.
“ADK is based off the Empire State Games. [When that ended] a group of girls wanted to continue to play,” said Jen Sykes. “When Phil and I were approached and agreed to move forward with it, we wanted to make girls better, like any club would, and we wanted to get the girls more exposure. It was a two-fold thing.
“I’m from Pennsylvania where field hockey is very big, and their players get seen,” she continued. “New York was way behind when we started. One of our goals was to change that.”
So ADK teams started going where they would be seen by college coaches from across the nation.
“College coaches want to maximize their time. They typically attend events run by USA Field Hockey. They are the events we go to,” said Jen Sykes. “A Maryland or a Stanford is not going to go out and see a high school game. That’s a lot of travel for little visual contact. At the major events, they can watch for an entire day.”
ADK has not only competed, but succeeded, at premier-level showcase tournaments as far away as Virginia and Florida. It’s under-19 team won a gold medal at the 2011 Disney Showcase, and earned two more in 2012 and 2013 at the National Field Hockey Festival.
ADK at one point climbed as high as No. 5 among 191 clubs in the USA Field Hockey rankings, and is currently No. 12, according to Jen Sykes.
“We’re one of the clubs where, on Day 1, coaches come to see us,” she said. “It didn’t used to be that way.”
“With our club, you’d see maybe a handful of college coaches at first,” said Phil Sykes. “Last year [at the National Field Hockey Festival in Florida], there were four or five ACC coaches, four or five Big 10 coaches, four or five Ivy League coaches. They’re watching our kids and saying, ‘Wow.’ ”
The ADK under-19 team includes Carrie Hanks, a recent Niskayuna graduate who is headed to multi-time NCAA Division I champion Maryland.
“I’m pretty sure it was the first year we won the festival when Maryland saw me play,” said Hanks, a two-time all-state and national team performer. “When I was younger, I never thought playing there would be an option for me.”
Zahnleuter knows it is now. So does Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake 16-year-old goalkeeper Brittany Ryan.
“When I joined in the winter, my thought was if I get to play with these girls, someday I might get a chance to go to college and play,” said Ryan, whose BH-BL team last fall reached the state Class B semifinals. “I’d love to use this [club] as a vehicle.”
Bethlehem grad Sydney Shaw, Shenendehowa grad Caroline Cady, BH-BL grad Meg Largo and Guilderland product Hailey Marini are headed to Stanford, Syracuse, American International and Scranton, respectively, while others in the senior class are staying closer to home, like Saratoga all-state selection Kelsey Bridell. She’ll join Bottino at UAlbany. Emma Willard’s Zoe McGuire will play at Skidmore, a 2013 NCAA Division III semifinalist, and Shenendehowa’s Molly Hagen is bound for Siena.
“We’ve got 27 seniors. This is the first time every one of our seniors is going to college to play,” said Jen Sykes. “They weren’t the [club] pioneers, but they were the ones who stepped up the tempo.”
They received expert help along the way from a host of ADK college coaches including the current foursome of UAlbany assistants Andrew Thornton and Michelle Simpson, Siena head coach Kara Zappone and her assistant, Kayla May.
“The coaches are awesome,” said Zahnleuter. “They’ve helped me become more confident with the ball. I have better stick skills because of them.”
“The coaches taught me so much,” said Hanks. “When I was real young, they could see I wanted to be a really good player, and they gave me little skills to practice. That’s what I did. I’d come back and when I said, ‘I can do this,’ they gave me another.”
“I wanted to experience playing with different kids from other schools, and of course, get coaching from college coaches,” said Ryan.
“You learn the right way to play field hockey,” said 15-year-old Emily Fraser, who, as a sophomore in 2013, was among the youngest players on Shenendehowa’s state Class A championship team. “All of the coaches played Division I, and if you want to play in college, they let you know what’s expected of you.”
That Shenendehowa state title team was full of ADK players, among them senior class members Erin Buckley (Fairfield) and Claire Virkler (Bentley), and under-19 goalie Melissa Nealon, who has another year with the Plainsmen before heading off to UAlbany.
“So many girls on our team played ADK. It definitely made a difference,” said Fraser. “Playing indoor and outdoor at a high level, it definitely gave us an edge. It helped us win states.”