May 18, 2011

Amonte Hiller Anticipates Fight from Albany

by J. Jude Hazard |

"You've got a lot of people from around the area now who are paying attention to what we're doing," Albany women's lacrosse coach John Battaglino said of the team's 18-0 season so far. The seventh-seeded Great Danes visit second-seeded Northwestern in the NCAA quarterfinals.

© Greg Wall

Blog: Is Albany the New Northwestern?

The Great Danes are no paper tigers.

Picked by coaches to finish second in the America East conference preseason poll, undefeated Albany (18-0) has defied expectations all year -- sometimes even its own. The No. 7-seeded Great Danes will get their biggest challenge of the season when they travel to second-ranked Northwestern to face the Wildcats on Saturday in an NCAA Division I women's lacrosse quarterfinal game.

A number of experts did not think Albany would even get this far. Although Albany was the seeded team, a conflict on campus forced the Danes' first-round NCAA tournament matchup to take place at Dartmouth against a Big Green team that was undefeated at home. That was enough for some to say it was the end of the line for Albany, and five minutes into the game, Dartmouth had a 3-0 lead. It looked like Albany's perfect season would be in trouble.

But as they have all year, the Danes rebounded with four unanswered goals in the next 14 minutes and went on to defeat the Big Green 10-7 to earn only the fifth NCAA tournament win for any Albany team at the Division I level.

"They've proven all season long that they're not going to get shaken by anyone. That's kind of where my previous teams were in those situations when I first started the program," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "That game against Dartmouth is a prime example. Dartmouth went up 3-0 right away and Albany was not shaken one iota. They fought back, they had confidence in their own abilities, and that's what we expect against them on Saturday."

Amonte Hiller has built a perrenial powerhouse at Northwestern that is appearing in its eighth consecutive NCAA quarterfinal. The Wildcats have competed in the last six NCAA championship games and won five consecutive titles from 2004 to 2009. She credited first-year Albany coach John Battaglino with leading a controlled, tough team that works hard on every possession. Battaglino was recently voted America East Coach of the Year.

"I know exactly where they're at in terms of a program," Amonte Hiller said. "I've been in their shoes where you're undefeated and still no one believes you're any good. I've been there and I know how good this team is. They wouldn't be undefeated, they wouldn't have beaten a great Dartmouth team, if they weren't any good. Our team respects every opponent that comes on the field."

Battaglino has cast aside talks of his team's record throughout the year and has consistently said Albany has room for improvement. He has worked this season to take the players from a place where they accepted mediocracy to one in which they expected greatness. Moments after the Danes capped a perfect regular season with a narrow 12-11 win against conference foe UMBC on April 30, Battaglino watched senior defensive midfielder Nikki Branchini sign autographs for a group of young lacrosse fans.

"That says everything about what the season's done," Battaglino said as he looked on while Branchini signed the jerseys of the enthusiastic girls. "You've got a lot of people from around the area now who are paying attention to what we're doing."

One person paying attention to the Danes on Saturday is UMBC coach Kelly Berger. She said Albany was able to defeat the Retrievers in both the regular season finale and the conference tournament final this year by never making the same mistake twice and staying disciplined on the field.

"I'm pulling for them. I really hope that they do well against Northwestern, and I do believe that they have the confidence and they know how to win," she said. "They've overcome so much already this season."

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