"30 Features in 30 days." Sarah Royals will lead the 2013-2014 Albany Great Danes.
How far she has come!!! Former Torrington High School star Sarah Royals takes on an even more important role as co-captain and leader of the Albany Great Danes for the 2013-2104 campaign. Picture courtesy of Jennifer Royals.
University of Albany: When Albany Great Dane senior Ebony Henry called sophomore guard Sarah Royals up to the podium during the team’s end of season banquet last spring, the former Torrington star was taken by surprise.
Henry had just helped guide the ‘Danes to a second consecutive American East title and a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance but was one of three key seniors who had just concluded their careers at Albany.
“Ebony called Sarah up to present her the keys they lock the baskets up with,” head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “She was giving her the keys to the team. I didn’t even know they were doing it but it was a big moment for Sarah, the team was hers to drive.”
A powerful message being sent to the former Naugatuck Valley League player from a team that now trusted her to take over a program.
Torrington folks remember her as a three-sport star who left as the Raiders all-time scoring leader in girls’ basketball and a kid who took the soccer team to new heights while being a force on the track as well.
Well, nowadays, Royals have found herself a new position on the big stage for a school and coach who have gotten used to the idea of being there.
Royals has been named one of the Captains of the 2013-2014 Albany Great Danes woman’s basketball team that has won the America East Title in back to back years and made it the NCAA Tournament as well.
“I have asked Sarah to be a leader of this team,” Coach Abe (as she is called) said. “She is to lead this team on their mission. For her first two years, Sarah followed the leadership above her. It’s her turn to be the vocal leader, the motivator, the one who lays down the lay with the team. It’s a role she has embraced.”
Think about how far Royals and the Albany program has come.
From a program not many around the country knew or respected before Abrahamson-Henderson came to town three years ago and transformed a program into the national scene.
After a 16-14 season in her first year (2010-2011), the Great Danes burst onto the region and national scene with a 23-10 record and an America East Tournament Title that earned them the automatic berth in the Big Dance.
A year ago, the Danes dominated play in the AE with an overall record of 27-4, best in school history.
Both appearances in the NCAA’s resulted in losses but both helped the school gain national respect and the players, including Royals, an experience of a lifetime.
Two years ago, Albany got a first round game with a powerhouse team from Georgia Tech and fell but not before hanging tough with the top ranked team in their bracket for a half.
It was a growth moment for the program which had raised the bar for last season when the Danes would not sneak up on anybody but still got the job done, nevertheless.
In the opening round of the NCAA’s a year ago, a strong North Carolina team was pushed to the limits by Royals and company who had gotten over the “just happy to be here” feeling of the year before in a hurry.
Albany stayed with the Tar Heels most of the game before falling, 59-54.
The difference in that game?
“The little things that we stress in every single practice,” Coach Abe said. “A missed box out, a key turnover. It’s why we work on them so hard in practice every day.”
You knew the program had taken another step because they felt they had let one get away, a far cry from being satisfied with just hanging in there.
This team and program now expects to win, Coach Abe (as she is known) has instilled that kind of mindset in a very short period of time and won’t likely be willing to accept anything less than the Great Danes best each and every time they take the court.
So what does the 2013-2014 season bring for the ladies from Upstate New York?
The word coming out of Albany is “Three-Peat”. The Great Danes look to become the first team in 15 years to accomplish that feat (Maine did it last time).
A tall order considering who they lost to graduation a year ago.
Ebone Henry is now the school’s all-time leading scorer while Julie Forster left as the new rebounding leader. Henry is now playing basketball in Iceland and is still in contact with her former coach.
Forster is playing in Denmark and averaging over 22 points per game to date as a pro.
Gone also are Lindsay Lowrie and Keyana Williams who helped bring the team to this higher atmosphere.
A good deal of the weight will fall on the former Raiders shoulders, a position she welcomes.
“We want to continue to be a team nobody wants to play,” Royals said. “Coach wants me to be the leader on the court and I’m going for it.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, the Torrington native has embraced her role with Albany and expects to see considerable more time on the court then the 25-minutes she had last year.
How has it been at the two big dances over her first two years?
“Breathtaking,” Royals said. “The first year we were amazed by everything that went into being at the Tournament. Last year we brought back so much experience that we played a higher quality of game and expected to win.”
It’s not the easiest thing to do, this Division 1 college ball. Juggling the court time and her studies is not a piece of cake but this is one very motivated individual.
“You have to work around the practice schedule which is from 12-3 Monday through Friday,” Royals said. “So I either have early morning or late night classes to get to.”
Add in the 7 a.m. lifting regiment that will come to an end soon and you can see this take an extraordinary effort at this level.
While a majority of the starters graduated last year (Royals is the only returner), the recruiting effort by Coach Abe and her staff has been strong since the start.
“We had some players who could have started on most other teams on the bench last year,” Royals said. “They will get their chances now.”
To get to this level, the Great Danes have had to dig deeper than they ever thought they would have to or could, you don’t just roll the ball on the court and expect to win.
“It’s supposed to be hard,” Coach Abe said. “When you see champions crying after winning it all, they cry because they have overcome so much along the way to get there. It’s a huge relief.”
Royals is now sitting at the helm of a program that has found that rarified air twice and likes it.
The journey began a long time ago in gyms in the Northwest Corner and continues in arenas across the country.
Albany is currently 2-0 with a huge game on tap as this story is being written when they host Marist.
In the Mid-Major rankings, Marist in ranked # 3 while the Great Danes are # 17.
The Battle of New York will be a good early season test for the former Raider and her Great Dane teammates as they work to get back to a place they have learned to like quite a bit.