It didn’t take long for Katie Carlson’s sisterly instincts to kick in.
It was the first preseason practice for the Northeastern University field hockey squad, and players were in the middle of an annual conditioning test that amounted to about 11 minutes of shuttling quickly back and forth across the new turf field at the school’s Dedham campus.
Carlson, a junior captain from Watertown, had completed the test in the past, but this year was different. Her younger sister, Alyssa, a freshman, was running just a few yards away, and Katie thought she saw her falling behind.
“Come on, Alyssa!” Katie shouted.
Both ended up passing the test with time to spare, the first of many challenges that the sisters will encounter in a season that opens Aug. 30 at home against Monmouth and stretches into November.
‘Their personalities couldn’t be more different. . . But when you put them on the field, they’re both competitors.’
Katie regretted her midrun verbal prod almost immediately; she didn’t want to make Alyssa nervous during her first college practice. But as the older sibling, she couldn’t help herself.
“I’m trying to keep an eye on her as much as I can,” Katie said with a laugh. “Even if we’re practicing in different positional groups, I’ll look over to see how she’s doing. I’m trying to keep her under my wing as much as possible.”
The benefits of having an older sister as a teammate have already been made apparent to Alyssa. They discuss everything from what clothes to pack to how to set a field-hockey-friendly class schedule, and what kinds of shoes to wear to practice.
“She’s definitely helped a lot because she’s been through it before and knows the ropes,” Alyssa said. “She’s given me a bunch of pointers. . . It’s been really helpful.”
During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, both Carlsons played under coach Eileen Donahue at Watertown High and helped the Raiders win back-to-back Division 2 state championships, along with Globe All-Scholastics Emily Sideris (2010 Watertown graduate now at Stonehill), Bianca Jones (2011 grad at University of Massachusetts Lowell), Erika Kelly (2012, Stonehill) and Lauren Sutherland (2013, Holy Cross).
Alyssa, an All-Scholastic last fall, went on to win two more state titles, in her junior and senior seasons. The team went undefeated in her four years at Watertown High, racking up a record of 92-0-3.
“They’re two different types of players,” Donahue said of the Carlsons. “Katie was a back for us, and she embraced that position. Alyssa played all over for us, and in her last two years she ended up as a back as well, and was very effective for us back there.”
Though they ended up playing similar positions in high school — and though there is a possibility they will play the same position for Northeastern coach Cheryl Murtagh — their skill sets vary. Katie is a harder hitter and can be more of a physical presence defensively, while Alyssa is more offensive-minded, and a stronger stick-handler.
Their father, Kevin, remembers two state championship-game moments that serve to highlight their on-the-field differences.
In a chippy title match between Watertown and Oakmont Regional in 2009, Katie stepped up and separated one of her opponents from the ball, shifting the game’s momentum. In last season’s title game — again, versus Oakmont — Alyssa stick-handled through traffic as the clock wound down and the opposing players tried unsuccessfully to take possession from her.
“Their personalities couldn’t be more different,” Kevin said. “Katie is definitely strong willed in a good way. She maybe has a tougher shell, you could say. Alyssa’s easygoing. She’s a softie. But when you put them on the field, they’re both competitors.”
They started out as gymnasts, Kate at 2 years old and Alyssa at 18 months. Through middle school they practiced on the second floor of their home, shaking the ceiling above their parents’ heads.
As elementary school students, they played field hockey in Watertown’s youth program but didn’t take up the sport in earnest until after they gave up the long hours required to compete in gymnastics.
“They were doing 20-plus hours at the gym every week,” said their mother, Deanna. “When they stopped, it was like, ‘Are we going to go from 24 hours a week at gym to nothing?’ I remember going to Target to get cleats, I went to Olympia Sports to get a stick, I met Katie at the middle school and said ‘C’mon, we’re going to play field hockey.’ ’’
Both sisters took to the sport quickly. They eventually joined a club team, Cape Ann Coalition, and traveled the country to play in tournaments frequented by college coaches.
At home, they worked nearly year-round to improve their skills. They made the hour drive to the Governor’s Academy in Newbury to practice with the Cape Ann team on Sunday mornings. They did drills together during family vacations on Cape Cod.
Katie even joined pick-up games at MIT where most of the players were men, many of whom developed a passion for field hockey while growing up in countries where the sport is more popular among males.
This summer they worked out together to be ready for Northeastern, which was picked during the preseason to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association.
At a gym in Waltham, Katie taught Alyssa some of the more complicated lifts she would be asked to perform at school.
Twice a week, they trained at Harvard with other local Division 1 field hockey players under the guidance of a former USA men’s national field hockey team member, Nate Coolidge.
There were moments during their training when they clashed, as sisters sometimes do, but they both know how much they benefited by pushing each other.
“It’s definitely tough, especially at home, to separate that line between sister and captain, and sister and teammate, but it’s fun,” Katie said. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been before, and I’m super happy about that. We get along, we joke around. We’ll both be huffing wind, and I’ll say, ‘I’m dying out here’ and she’ll laugh at me or I’ll laugh at her. It’s fun.”
Both Katie and Alyssa know that they only have a few years together as college teammates, so they plan to savor them.
“It’s great playing on the same team again,” Alyssa said.