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Conley engineering strong season for Dutchwomen

Conley engineering strong season for Dutchwomen

Versatile forward has helped Union to third place in the Liberty League while thriving in a rigorous biomedical engineering curriculum
Conley engineering strong season for Dutchwomen
Union's Nicole Conley grabs her own rebound against Skidmore during the Dutchwomen's victory on Jan. 5.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SCHENECTADY -- This filter is working.

It's designed to keep Union women's basketball opponents' shots from getting to the rim, and senior forward Nicole Conley has been leading NCAA Division III in blocked shots this season. That, and her team-leading scoring average (16.5 ppg) and rebounding average (9.4) have helped the Dutchwomen to a 12-5 overall record and third place in the Liberty League standings.

The other filter in her life wasn't working. So Conley and her other team are fixing it.

"We didn't really know much about the difference between the physical properties of a vein versus an artery," Conley said two weeks ago during a break from class and basketball.

"So I guess our design would've worked perfectly in an artery, with the different elasticity and stuff. It's not really ideal for a vein, so we just have to tweak a couple things. But I think we're back on track."

Conley, a former Gazette All-Area first-teamer for Scotia-Glenville High School, is spinning the rigors of life as a college basketball player and biomedical engineering student like a ball on her fingertip.

That doesn't mean it's all smooth. She and two classmates have been working on a two-term capstone project designing a means of catching blood clots before they become pulmonary embolisms. After their device was reviewed by some doctors, Conley's team had to go back to the drawing board.

Perhaps this project doesn't have any direct complementary relationship with her chosen sport, but Conley did participate in a program last summer that did.

She joined Union volunteer assistant coach Amy Loya, a former Dutchwomen player who is currently working on her Ph.D. in biomed engineering, as counselors at the Youth Sports Lab, which was designed by Loya in her role as a Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine (STEM+M) director for 4th Family.

That's an Albany-based not-for-profit whose mission is to provide at-risk youths and adults community events and mentor programs "to motivate, encourage and uplift the community," according to its mission statement.

For the Youth Sports Lab, Loya and Conley traveled to Harlem and worked with 14 middle schoolers for a week showing them how basketball offered avenues to many more careers, like sports analytics, than just being a professional player, which only a tiny percentage of players will realize.

"Outside of the X's and O's, the most impressive thing about Nicole is her growth as a leader," Loya said. "She came into her own and became that thermostat as far as the team.

"I knew we needed to get Nicole involved in this [Youth Sports Lab]. We needed someone to give these young people from Harlem a role model, and Nicole has been successful in basketball and the classroom. She dove right in."

"Basically, you're trying to encourage children who like basketball to incorporate that into STEM and teach kids that you don't just have to go pro to have sports involved in your life still," Conley said. "It's getting kids to see the classroom side of things.

"There's a lot of sports management or other STEM careers where you can keep basketball or any other sport. Our main focus was teaching them that, even though you don't think about it, all of your mechanical movements, your form and everything like that, comes from a STEM background, and you can tweak those to help your athletic performance."

Among the activities was building "jump plates" with electrical circuitry that could measure the vertical jump height of basketball players.

The students also set up databases to track shooting efficiency from various spots on the court, were put through a set of drills mimicking the NBA rookie combine and set up research projects to measure a specific aspect of basketball of their choice.

The Columbia women's basketball team even served as guinea pigs to test how leg fatigue can affect shooting percentage.

"They were also very competitive toward each other, trying to outlast each other on the wall sits to the very end," Conley said. "It was a lot of fun."

The experience was even more fun for the kids when New York Knicks guard Emmanuel Mudiay stopped by at the end of camp to listen to their presentations and encourage them to stick with  their schoolwork.

Conley said she saw clear evidence that the message of the camp got through.

"Oh, yeah, definitely," she said. "At the beginning of the week, all the kids wanted to be on their phones and play the games during lunch and go back to the basketball court. But by the end, they were really excited to work on their presentations. At the end of the week, they were like, 'Oh, you guys are coming back next year, right?'"

"Her background with basketball and biomedical engineering was vital to the success of this camp," Loya said. "To lead by example in both was invaluable."

The Dutchwomen, who face RPI at home Friday night before taking on Liberty League leader Vassar on Saturday, are chasing Vassar and Ithaca while trying to fend off RIT and William Smith for third place.

Conley, who actually finds it easier to keep up with schoolwork in-season because there's no time to procrastinate, relies on her long arms to be a shot-blocking menace.

Too describe her team this year, she ventured outside of her chosen science field into another.

"We have really good team chemistry and play a lot of team basketball, probably moreso than I have the past three years here," she said. "Every game, we assist about 50-plus [percent] of our baskets, which is huge.

"This year's a lot different from other years that I've been playing, especially last year. We had a lot of injuries and were just down a lot of kids, like on a day-to-day, who could play and who couldn't. This year, we have a full team, a full bench, and anyone can play at any minute in a game. That's a game-changer."

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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