By Kristin Schultz
The Niskayuna fourth-grade travel basketball team attended a University at Albany women’s basketball game and the outing was a slam dunk.
Seven girls and a handful of parents, grandparents and coaches braved sub-zero temperatures on Saturday, Jan. 6, and headed to SEFCU Arena to watch the Great Danes take on the Wildcats of the University of New Hampshire.
While the Danes may have won the game, the experience won the hearts of the Niskayuna players and their families.
Niskayuna coach Joe DiPiazza knew that the university makes efforts to make the games fun and accessible for families and fans and decided to offer the trip to the team.
“For some of the girls, it was their first opportunity to see a [college game],” DiPiazza said. “It was an opportunity to learn and have a great experience with friends.”
The girls did have a good time. Some of them were tapped to help with halftime entertainment, like a game of musical chairs and a Marco Polo type game where a blindfolded participant tries to locate and tag the mascot.
Sarah Toth, 10, donned the blindfold and took to center court to try to tag Damien, the Great Dane. The fans in the stands yelled to try to help her. After a few minutes of trying, she managed to get the mascot.
“It was fun,” Toth said.
Ava Roemer won the musical chairs competition, despite wearing heavy snow boots. She said she was nervous but excited when she was victorious at the halftime game. She also liked seeing the college girls in action.
“I liked watching them play,” Roemer said.
Michaela Katz (who won the halftime dance competition) also enjoyed watching the game and noticed that many of the skills and moves she and her teammates are learning as fourth-graders are the same skills needed to play at the college level.
Sophia Connell liked that Bose Aiyalogbe, who wears jersey number 13 just like Connell, scored a lot of points.
It is that combination of fun and games that the university hopes will draw a crowd and ignite interest in the school and athletics.
“We hope they’ve had a great time, had a positive experience and want to come back,” said University at Albany athletic director Mark Benson. “Our student athletes are very accessible and fans can relate to them. We have good athletes and good students.”
All the Niskayuna players, including DiPiazza’s daughter Maria, all said they hoped to go see another game.
“It was cool to watch the older girls play,” Maria said.
The accessibility to the athletes and to Coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee gives younger fans the opportunity to have a more personal experience and a chance to see role models up close.
“Our girls are great role models all around,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “They get along, the enjoy each other and they work hard for each other — things that coaches at all levels want to inspire in their teams.”
In addition to meeting with fans before and after games, the University of Albany Women’s basketball team visits elementary schools and hosts a clinic for local Girl Scouts. All of the team’s practices are open to the public as well as a way to encourage community involvement.
“I hope younger players watch them and see their work ethic, heart, love for one another and strong basketball fundamentals,” she said.
Indeed, those are the things that DiPiazza wants the fourth-grade team to know.