By ANDREW YOURELL
The Wildcats opened their conference season with a strong 2-1 victory over the UMass-Lowell Riverhawks on Saturday. But on Sunday, UNH will face an even tougher test against the No. 6-ranked University at Albany Great Danes. The matchup will be the first meeting between the teams since last year’s America East conference finals, which Albany won 5-0.
“Albany is just outstanding across the board,” UNH head coach Robin Balducci said. “We’ve got a longstanding history with them in terms of a competitiveness.”
The Wildcats enter the game with a 4-5 record, with all five losses coming in away games. The Great Danes are 7-1, their only loss coming in a 4-2 decision the North Carolina Tar Heels, who were the No. 2-ranked team in the country at the time. Albany has its first conference match of the season on Friday against Vermont before the tilt with UNH.
“What it’s going to take to beat the them is clearly more of an error free game,” Balducci said.” We need to limit penalty corners, they have an outstanding penalty corner unit.”
Penalty corners were an issue in last week’s games against the Riverhawks and the Providence Friars, where UNH dominated the time of possession and won in shots. In both games, however, the Wildcats only won 2-1, failing to capitalize on their own penalty corners, while committing too many errors and giving their opponents a chance to get back into the games.
One major concern for the Wildcats against Albany will be midfielder Paula Heuser, the reigning NFHCA Player of the Year and the NCAA Division I record holder for career goals. The junior, a native of Monchengladbach, Germany, is an instant matchup nightmare for Balducci’s squad.
“Best player in the country last year,” Balducci said. “She’s their primary corner shooter, so we’re going to need to limit corners, and we’re going to need to generate attack.”
Generating an attack has been a work in progress for the ‘Cats all season, though they’ve been trending in the right direction. Against UMass-Lowell, the team fired 17 shots, and had 12 against Providence in the same weekend. Against Maryland, another powerhouse program, the Wildcats tallied 14 shots.
While the goals have been slow in coming, the number and quality of shots is something that Balducci sees as a positive for her team, especially as they get ready to take on Albany. Leading the team this season in goals is Lindsay Nerbonne, who scored in both the Providence and UMass-Lowell games and has five goals on the year. Nerbonne is complimented by Meg Flatley, the senior captain, who brings four goals and two assists to the table. With her speed, Flatley is one of the players that Balducci expects defenses to key in on.
“Lindsay Nerbonne needs to be attacking for us to offset Flatley,” Balducci said. “Teams will focus on Meg Flatley. I think Flat needs to read early on how she’s going to need to play, whether she’s going to need to be the one that we go to, or she’s going to need to be the playmaker.”
While Balducci does not deny that her playmakers will need to perform at a high level to garner a win, she’s clear that the burden cannot be placed squarely on their shoulders if the ‘Cats have any hopes of winning. Winning will require the entire team to up its game.
“It will take a team effort to have a shot at beating them, for sure. It’s not going to take any one performance, two performances,” she said. “[Goalkeeper Melissa] Rize and our defense are going to have to have an outstanding game. [Albany’s] going to generate shots, they’re going to get scoring opportunities. If we can come up with a couple of big stops, maybe put in a couple of goals, then that becomes the neutralizer for an opportunity to play them, and maybe be successful.”
Another factor going against the Wildcats will be the atmosphere.
“Albany is a tough place to play,” Balducci said. “They rally the troops.” But the emotional aspect of the game is something that Balducci expects will keep her team motivated to ignore the crowds. Last year’s title game, and the fact that the Wildcats and Great Danes have squared off for the America East Championships every year since 2009, means that this game will have a great deal of meaning for the Wildcats program with the new America East format.
The game is set to start at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4. After the matchup at Albany, the Wildcats return to Durham for another America East showdown with the Vermont Catamounts.
‘Cats travel to Albany for conference finals rematch
By ANDREW YOURELL