Albany aims for perfection
Only one undefeated team is left in the women's lacrosse NCAA tournament but that squad is an underdog for Saturday's quarterfinals. And that's OK with Albany.
The Great Danes, 18-0, are in the NCAA field for the first time. They are the America East champions and the No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they defeated Dartmouth in the first round. And it's notable that Dartmouth is the only team this season that defeated No. 1 seed Maryland. The Terps fell in double overtime at Dartmouth to end the regular season.
That Maryland loss left Albany as the only team with an unblemished record, which it will try to defend against No. 2 seed and five-time NCAA champion Northwestern at Lakeside Field in Evanston, Ill.
"We play hard, and I just think the kids believe if they stick around long enough, they can finish the fight," Albany coach John Battaglino said. "That's been nice; it's one thing that I think has changed since I got here. Things used to sometimes fall apart, but they've evolved to where they finish strong."
Battaglino tells the story of how he got on the path to becoming Albany's coach: It was sort of by accident. In 1995, he answered a newspaper ad about becoming lacrosse coach at Bethlehem High School in his native New York state. He assumed it was for a boys' team, then found out it was for the girls' squad.
Still, Battaglino didn't really hesitate to take the job. He decided to give it a try, assuming he would move on to something else after a short while anyway.
"I thought, 'Well, hey, it could be fun,'" Battaglino recalled. "I didn't consider this was something I was going to do for a long time. I thought it was convenient; I would enjoy it and make a little money. Little did I know it would change my life."
He was a successful preps coach, then became an assistant with the Syracuse women's program. He went to Albany in 2009 as associate head coach, then was elevated to head coach this season when former coach Lindsey Hart Svec moved on to join her husband at Hobart and William Smith College.
The Great Danes, who were 9-8 in 2009, improved to 13-3 last season and have yet to lose this season. Jodi Battaglia leads Albany in goals with 54, and fellow senior Taylor Frink has a team-high 83 points on 34 goals and 49 assists.
"A lot of things have gone right, but we've also had a lot to overcome," said Battaglia, who was sidelined last year with a hip injury. "We had three ACL tears to starters over the course of the year. We got used to being the underdog in a lot of games. In our next game, especially, that's going to be motivation for us."
Battaglia's last name is just enough like her coach's that people sometimes misread them as the same.
"I've gotten that a lot," she said, laughing. "Parents on recruiting visits will ask if I'm his daughter.
"He's a perfectionist and really has a way of analyzing players and bringing out the best in all of us and setting up a system that's successful."
Battaglino said that even though he intentionally didn't set out to coach women, once he made the transition, he didn't see any changes he made from coaching males.
"I don't treat them any differently," he said. "You try to motivate them; you give them an earful sometimes. I really just don't see any difference."
The sports of men's and women's lacrosse are different, though, in terms of the physicality allowed, the sticks and certain guidelines. Battaglino thinks there have been some necessary rules changes on the women's side to take advantage of players' increased athleticism.
"You really have to use your feet and body well on defense in women's lacrosse," he said. "You have to know your angles. I think there are more fast breaks on the women's side. It's a really good game to watch.
As for Northwestern, which lost the NCAA title game to Maryland last year after winning five straight titles, the Great Danes are respectful but not intimidated.
"It's a great opportunity for us; Northwestern is such a powerhouse in lacrosse," Battaglia said. "But for this game, we have to just focus on them just being a regular team.
"It was tough for me last year, sitting and watching the team grow -- and it was such a growing year for us -- because I couldn't play. It's such a tangible reward to have done what we have this year."
Around the nation
• NCAA tennis: Saturday's quarterfinals are set on the men's side, and No. 1 seed Virginia will next face No. 8 Stanford -- on the Cardinal's home court. Stanford is host to the remainder of the tournament on both the men's and women's sides. The women's third round is Friday, with their quarterfinals to be played Sunday. Semifinals for the men and women are Monday, then the championship matches will be played Tuesday. ESPNU will televise the men at 3 p.m. ET followed by the women at 7 p.m.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.