BY MICHAEL KELLY
COLONIE — When it comes to high school basketball programs, summertime is all about hope and the promise of potential.
So when Niskayuna girls’ basketball head coach Sarah Neely looks at her projected roster for next season, she’s not the only area coach who gets excited about what could be when the winter months roll around.
What’s different, though, is Neely’s been looking forward to this upcoming season for several years.
“This,” Neely said of her upcoming group, “is perfect timing.”
As a senior year awaits for Olivia Owens, the team’s 6-foot-4 star who is expected to announce her college commitment later this summer, Niskayuna’s summer team, playing in a league at Rudy A. Ciccotti Family Recreation Center, is largely built around a group of rising sophomores who have dominated at previous levels. As freshmen, that foursome of Ivy Owens — a relative of Olivia Owens — Natalie Prian, Emma Souky and Kate St. Lucia helped lead Niskayuna’s JV team last season to a 19-1 mark.
“We have not had a group like them come through in a long time,” said Neely, whose Silver Warriors come from one of the area’s smallest Class AA schools. “They’ve played together since they were little girls, and there is something special about that you can’t teach. They can read each other on the court and they know their strengths and weaknesses.”
Neely declined last season to bring up any of the talented youngsters, instead opting to keep them playing as a unit.
“We kept working together, moving up together,” Souky said. “That’s worked for us.”
While that JV group experienced success, the varsity went through an up-and-down season despite Olivia Owens averaging 20.6 points and 12.3 rebounds. The Silver Warriors scored a couple big wins during the regular season, but fell in the first round of the Section II Class AA postseason.
“When we clicked, we played pretty well,” Neely said. “The problem last year was we relied on Olivia to score so much — and if she didn’t score, we struggled. With these younger girls coming up, they can all score.”
“Moving the ball around and just getting everyone involved in the game is important for us,” Ivy Owens said.
Emma Souky’s father, Steve Souky, coached the Niskayuna youngsters at the youth ranks, and he’s running Niskayuna’s summer-league team as he has in past years for Neely. The challenge for the four rising sophomores this upcoming season, he said, will be figuring out how they fit around Olivia Owens, who is mostly competing for Albany City Rocks this summer.
“It’s going to be a learning experience playing with her because they’ve never had a dominant post presence like that to play with on the court,” coach Souky said.
But that’s a good challenges to take on, and how that fit works isn’t hard to see. While it’s unlikely all four rising sophomores will start this next season — Niskayuna brings back all but three players from last year’s roster — they all can theoretically play alongside Olivia Owens in the same lineup because their games are perimeter-based.
“They’re going to take pressure away from Olivia,” Neely said.
If that works out, Niskayuna will instead put pressure on the Suburban Council’s perennial powers later this year. The hope is that the young group cashes in on its potential right away alongside Olivia Owens.
“They’ve always had success,” Neely said. “They go out there expecting to win.”