April 6, 2011

And Then There Were Four: Albany Women's Lacrosse in Rare Company

by J. Jude Hazard | LaxMagazine.com

Senior Nikki Branchini, coming off a career-best four-goal performance, is one of the few veteran players on an undefeated Albany team that starts six freshmen.

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Undefeated, but far from perfect.

That's the sentiment echoed by Albany women's lacrosse coach John Battaglino, whose Great Danes' 9-0 record has earned the program's first ever top 10 ranking in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Association Division I poll. The Danes moved up one spot to No. 10 in this week's ICWLA poll and are also ranked No. 7 in the country by deBeer/Inside Lacrosse.

Albany joins Maryland, Northwestern and Loyola as the only teams left unbeaten in Division I this year. But Battaglino said the team's winning streak is not a factor in his mind during practice or game planning.

"I don't want to be the constant cynic, but there are things that generally we can do better," he said. "The kids are working really hard."

Battaglino said he will start asking his players, including six freshman starters, to begin breaking out of the roles that they've established while continuing to do well in what they individually do best.

"The kids are stepping up. I always expect and demand a little bit more than they think they're capable of," he added. "I do think their best is yet to come."

Battaglino said he is specifically asking players to improve on their reads and recognize when opportunities become available on the offensive end.

"We're looking to branch out a little bit and test some of the things that we've been preaching and teaching," he said. "When the time is right, we expect to open things up a little more."

Albany leads the nation in scoring defense with 6.11 goals allowed per game and is averaging 13.11 goals per game on offense. The team has doubled up its opponents three times this year, including a season-opening 18-2 romp of cross-town rival Siena and last week's 11-5 conference-opening win at Stony Brook.

"You just go out and play hard and at the end of the game, you look at the scoreboard," Battaglino said he tells his players. "If you play the style I expect, you're going to look up and more times than not say, 'Oh, by the way, we won'."

Battaglino cited strong defensive play and consistent ball control as reasons for the team's success.

"All four of my defenders back there are just doing an outstanding job," he said. "We just try to keep it very simple and also have them play to their strengths and get the matchups we want."

The Danes' balanced offensive attack has consisted of five different players who have notched more than 10 goals so far this season. Senior midfielder Nikki Branchini, Albany's first-ever Division I All-American lauded more for her defense than offense, scored a career-high four goals and one assist, all in the second half, during the team's win over Stony Brook on Saturday.

"It's great to be recognized for our hard work, but now we have to realize that everyone is going to be gunning for us," Branchini said. "There's always room for improvement. When we play different teams, they throw different defenses at us, so we have to adapt. We always have to be changing what we're thinking, because every team is different."

Battaglino took over as head coach this year following the resignation of Lindsay Hart, who in 2010 guided the Danes to a program-best 13-3 record. Albany's 2010 campaign ended with a loss to UMBC in the America East conference tournament semifinals.

"I definitely expected we would have success this year, because we worked really hard in the offseason," Branchini said. "It's definitely rewarding to see our hard work pay off."

Albany (9-0, 1-0 America East) will look to keep it rolling with two conference home games this week, including contests against Vermont (7-5, 1-1) on Wednesday and New Hampshire (5-5, 0-1 AE) on Saturday.

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