May 13, 2011

Albany's Perfect Season Put to Test in NCAA Tournament Debut at Dartmouth

by J. Jude Hazard |

Senior Taylor Frink became the Albany women's lacrosse team's first-ever Tewaaraton Award nominee this year.

© Greg Wall

It's been a season of firsts, and the Great Danes are not done yet.

Seventh-seed Albany (17-0) will look to get the program's first-ever NCAA Division I women's lacrosse tournament win in its first-ever tournament appearance when it visits Dartmouth to face the Big Green on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Albany is the first America East team to go undefeated in the regular season since the conference's inception in 1996. In John Battaglino's first year as the team's head coach, the Danes have garnered the program's first America East championship and first national top-10 ranking. Senior Nikki Branchini is the program's first Division I All-American and senior Taylor Frink is Albany's first-ever Tewaaraton Award nominee.

"I've coached a lot of great teams. Their performance this year has been one of the best," Battaglino said after Albany's tournament match-up against Dartmouth was announced last Sunday. As the seeded team, Albany typically would have hosted a first-round game, but is unable to because of commencement on campus this weekend.

The Danes often have more coaches and trainers on the sidelines than they do substitute players. Carrying a roster of just 20 players, Albany has had just a handful of subs throughout the year due to injuries.

The team's senior leadership is unmistakable, with Branchini's lock-down defense, relentless ground ball play and ball control domination complimenting Frink and Battaglia's balanced offense and combined 84 goals. Frink and Battaglia's respective 81 and 66 points this year put them one-two on the team's all-time single season scoring list.

But just as important this year has been the contributions of underclassmen. Freshman midfielder Ariana Parker started every game and scored 43 goals, while sophomore Rachael Burek is fourth on the team with 26 goals. Parker was named to the America East all-league first team along with fellow freshman Michelle Primomo (10 caused turnovers).

"We took the freshmen under our wing," Battaglia said. "They definitely had to play like they weren't freshmen."

Battaglia made an immediate impact on the team in 2008 as the third-leading scorer in her freshman year. She was named first team all-conference as a sophomore and established the program mark with a .655 shooting percentage in 2009. Her junior campaign was limited by injury, but she still finished second on the team in assists last year.

"Freshman year, this is not something that I ever thought we would have attained...maybe America East championship, but never a perfect season," Battaglia said. "I never thought that our program was going to be where we are now."

Battaglino has downplayed his team's success and undefeated record throughout the season. He said he took a team with mediocre expectations and set the bar higher than it ever was before.

"The kids are stepping up. I always expect and demand a little bit more than they think they're capable of," he said earlier this season. "As freshmen, a lot of them are playing out of position and learning the game."

Battaglia said Battaglino has been clear what his expectations are from the beginning of the season, adding that the first-year coach has led by example. Battaglino was recently named America East Coach of the Year by the conference.

"After working so hard, it's a great accomplishment," Battaglia said. "I couldn't be more happy. We waited four years for this."

Albany faces a giant killer Sunday in 11-4 Dartmouth. The Big Green derailed top-ranked Maryland's bid for a perfect season in the teams' regular season finale May 1 before falling to Harvard in the Ivy League tournament. Dartmouth is a perfect 8-0 at home this year, including the win against the Terps and a 10-7 home win against then-No. 13 Syracuse in April.

"They're a great team. They've obviously had some good competition this year," Battaglia said. "Our goal is just taking it one game at a time and doing the little things right. I don't think we're going to be changing too much as far as our mindset."

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