Lacrosse: Undefeated Albany new foe for NU

Colin Becht

Among the 16 teams announced in the field for the NCAA Championships, three stood out from the rest. It was not because of their talent – though each team is among the best in the country – but because of their shared history, or lack of it.

This is the first NCAA Championships appearance for Florida, Boston College – Northwestern’s first-round opponent – and Albany – the Wildcats’ second-round foe.

“It’s great,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “There’s some teams that are in the tournament that have never been there, and they’re competing.”

Both the Gators and the Great Danes advanced to the second round of the tournament while the Eagles pushed the Cats to a tight 11-8 win Saturday.

In a sign of the parity of this year’s tournament, five of the eight first-round games were decided by three goals or less, with second-seeded NU and fifth-seeded Duke among the teams pushed close to the brink.

“It’s not just the top five teams are better than everybody else,” senior midfielder Colleen Magarity said. “Everybody’s good.”

While the spread of women’s lacrosse across the country has made the Cats’ path to a sixth national championship more difficult, Amonte Hiller said she believes NU can take some of the credit for the sport’s growth.

“That’s one of the things that was my charges here, I wanted to help spread the game in the Illinois area,” Amonte Hiller said. “The success and the athletic directors’ seeing us be successful so quickly gives hope to a lot of people.”

Florida is the type of program whose inception may have been inspired by the Cats’ own rapid development over the past decade.

The Gators have had a meteoric rise to the upper echelon of women’s lacrosse. The school is in just its second year of supporting the sport at a varsity level but is one of only two teams to defeat the Cats this year.

“It makes people have faith to go and make that bold and strong move to go start a brand-new program,” Magarity said. “It’s kind of scary sometimes to be like, ‘Oh, I want to start from scratch,’ but I think this program definitely exemplified that you can become a strong team in a little amount of time.”

But an increasing number of programs have presented more obstacles for NU, even just in terms of the sheer number of teams competing.

“If anything, that just makes the pot a little sweeter,” junior goaltender Brianne LoManto said. “It drives who’s after that championship.”

While Albany may not have the same track record as NU, history won’t matter when the teams meet Saturday at 7 p.m. at Lakeside Field.

The Great Danes are the only team in Division I that is still undefeated, sweeping the America East conference as well as five ranked opponents.

Much like Duke, whom NU defeated 12-10 earlier this season, Albany’s offense revolves around two attackers, a primary scorer along with a talented distributor. Attacker Jodi Battaglia provides the finishing, scoring three goals per game, 18th best in the NCAA. Fellow attacker Taylor Frink, however, runs the offense, leading the nation in assists with 2.72 dishes per contest.

Albany’s greatest strength, however, is not its offense but goalie Anna Berman. Berman has proven to be a veritable blockade of the goal frame in only her freshman season.

She is second in the nation, allowing only 6.82 goals per game, and has posted a .463 save percentage.

“She plays a little higher out,” LoManto said of her counterpart. “It’s kind of a give-and-take. Some goalies do play a little bit farther back. It gives them more time to see where the shot’s going. But then again, it also doesn’t cut down on the angle as much as most of the goalies who play a little higher on the crease.”

Though Albany’s stats and record certainly make the Great Danes formidable opponents, the Cats have no absence of experience against elite talent, something Albany lacks to an extent.

While NU has played eight games against opponents ranked in the top 10, Saturday’s game will be Albany’s first. The Cats won seven of those eight games.

“Not only are we playing elite opponents, but we’re playing them in a Friday-Sunday format,” Amonte Hiller said. “No other team is really doing that. People are playing one game in a weekend, and I think that really hopefully should help us. When we have a whole week to prepare, it definitely gives us the opportunity to put more things in and get more creative.”

NU played two ranked opponents on a Friday and a Sunday in the same weekend three times this season, winning all six of those games.

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