ALBANY — Colleen Mullen acknowledged the UAlbany women’s basketball program was in somewhat “unfamiliar territory” as it opened up its preseason Wednesday at its home SEFCU Arena.
That’s a good thing.
In Mullen’s first three seasons guiding the Great Danes’ program, UAlbany started each season needing to find its identity. That ever-shifting rebuild was the price to pay for a program that experienced seven consecutive 20-win seasons, a run that catapulted two coaches — Katie Abrahamson-Henderson and Joanna Bernabei-McNamee — to new jobs, but left UAlbany’s roster in tough shape when Mullen took control in May 2018.
At that point? Mullen said the task of rebuilding the UAlbany program was a three-year project.
Those three seasons are complete — and the Great Danes look ready to win.
“It’s really nice to finally be able to feel like you have players that understand your expectations,” Mullen said after the Great Danes’ first official practice of the 2021-22 campaign.
UAlbany returns four starters from last season, which saw the Great Danes finish with a losing record for the third consecutive season, but make it to the America East Conference semifinals for the second time with Mullen as coach. Those four players — Lucia Decortes, Helene Haegerstrand, Ellen Hahne and Grace Heeps — started every game last season, and UAlbany brings back five of its top-six scorers from last season with that quartet and Kayla Cooper.
“There’s a little bit more stability, and security and understanding that everybody’s on the same page,” Mullen said.
There’s a bit more hunger, too, after a 2020-21 season for the Great Danes that included a variety of pandemic-related pauses that derailed UAlbany’s ability to stay on the court with any consistency.
“We really couldn’t build that chemistry,” Mullen said.
This time around?
“Team chemistry [is] through the roof compared to last year,” guard Morgan Haney said.
The return of Haney is a source of optimism, too, for the Great Danes. With the exception of several games as a freshman that she started, knee injuries have sidelined Haney throughout her college career. The redshirt sophomore, though, is back on the court, and she practiced Wednesday without needing to wear a knee brace.
Haney is one of several candidates to fill the open starting position at point guard, which Kyara Frames filled for each of Mullen’s first three seasons at UAlbany before transferring to George Washington during the offseason. Besides Haney, freshmen Lilly Phillips and Abby Ray — Cambridge High School and Saratoga Springs High School graduates, respectively — are in the mix competing for minutes in UAlbany’s backcourt, as is junior Fatima Lee.
Haegerstrand said it’s “hard to say this early” how the battle for the team’s open position in its starting lineup will play out, but she also added she isn’t worried about it.
“It’s going to fall into place,” said Haegerstrand, the Great Danes’ top scorer last season. “I’m 100% confident in that.”
“We’re deeper than we’ve ever been,” Mullen said.
And it appears to be quality depth.
“Everyone has a talent that we need [for] our team,” Decortes said.
A player to watch for UAlbany could be freshman Freja Werth, who is the fourth player from Sweden to play for the Great Danes with Mullen as coach. Werth, a 6-foot-1 perimeter player with the ability to attack off the dribble and post up, had several strong sequences during Wednesday’s practice — and Mullen only sees one issue with her game.
“She’s too unselfish,” Mullen said.
The Great Danes don’t play until Nov. 10 against Hofstra, a game that starts an 11-game non-conference slate to prepare them for America East play.
Mullen said she likes the foundation her team built during its offseason workouts, and expects her team to continue growing throughout the weeks ahead of its first game.
“I’m just so excited about this group,” Mullen said.