By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — For Riley McDonald, being a varsity soccer player never gets old.
“Ever since I was a little kid, playing on varsity has been the dream,” the Niskayuna High School senior said. “It’s my third year on varsity, but it still has the same feeling.”
McDonald’s coach, Joe Carosella, said the fact that McDonald never takes his spot on the varsity team for granted really shows on the field. Though he’s a goalie and doesn’t get to make glamorous shots, he’s the backbone of the team.
“He has a direct impact on the game a lot,” Carosella said.
From his vantage point on the field, McDonald can often help other players figure out what moves to make — and he does.
“He leads from the back as the goalie,” Carosella said. “He’s got the tactical knowledge to really make a difference.”
His hard work, both on the field and on his own time, really shows, sometimes even drawing compliments from unlikely sources. A coach from Shenendehowa once approached Carosella to comment on an especially impressive save by McDonald against one of the opposing team’s best players.
But rather than let the praise go to his head, McDonald focuses on enjoying the game and supporting his team. He loves that the players are willing to get down to business every practice.
“Everybody works as hard as they can every day,” McDonald said. “This team really wants to win.”
But sometimes, they’ve got to blow off steam and relax together. That’s where a cherished team tradition comes in: Funky Friday.
Whenever the team wins a game, on the following Friday practice, they dress up in the silliest outfits they can muster and wear them throughout practice. Sometimes the freshman members of the team even have to wear their gear during the day’s classes as a sort of initiation.
It’s a way for the team to bond and let loose. It’s also, probably, the only time a bystander might see a cow doing dribble drills in Niskayuna (or anywhere else).
McDonald is a huge proponent of the tradition, and arrived at practice the afternoon of Sept. 19 wearing a skirt, a child’s bathrobe, and a pink Superman cape he borrowed from his older sister, who’s now in college and couldn’t object.
His coach, dressed in vivid, printed pants and a Jets jersey with a tight tank top stretched over it, didn’t have to say anything at all to prove he was all in on the team tradition. But he did, anyway, because he truly loves it.
“People have this idea, when I say I work with high school kids, they say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t work in a high school, the kids are mean,’ ” Carosella said. “It’s nice to see that they’re not inhibited; they’re not uptight.”
He said the tradition was a reminder to strike a balance between silliness and seriousness, and to remember that image isn’t everything.
“We like each other. We trust each other,” Carosella said. “I think it’s about being able to laugh at yourself.”
The previous coach allowed the goofy antics, but didn’t embrace them. When Carosella took over the team four years ago, he was enthusiastic.
McDonald confirms his coach’s wholehearted approach to their unique team bonding strategy. He’s not even impressed by the psychedelic pants-football jersey combo.
“This might be the tamest he’s ever gone,” McDonald said. Once, Carosella showed up in a wig.
It’s all in good fun, but McDonald said it’s important for the team, too.
“It brings us together,” he said. “It’s fun to see the guys a little goofier than usual.”