Northwestern Lacrosse’s Secret to Success
QUICK STICK: How the NU women’s lax team went from nowhere to six national championships in little more than a decade
Northwestern takes on Johns Hopkins
UPDATE: On May 27, 2012, Northwestern University's women's lacross team won its seventh NCAA championship in eight years by defeating Syracuse 8-6 in Stony Brook, New York. The article below, published in mid-May, appears in the June 2012 issue of Chicago.
One afternoon in 2001, Kelly Amonte Hiller, who had recently begun coaching women’s lacrosse at Northwestern University, saw a pair of identical twins dominating a flag football game on a field in Evanston. She tracked them down, learned they were freshmen, and eventually talked them into joining her new team. Neither had ever touched a lacrosse stick. Four years later, Ashley and Courtney Koester graduated as all-Americans—and national champions. “Kelly had us believing,” recalls Ashley Koester. “She was a firm believer that we were all going to be champions.”
Kelly Amonte Hiller
Over the next six years, Amonte Hiller’s teams went on to win five more championships and compile a record of 126–7. Her players have five times earned the Tewaaraton Award, the equivalent of football’s Heisman. Not bad for a sport so unknown in Evanston that Northwestern didn’t even have a varsity program at the beginning of the millennium. How did the school pull it off? Three words: Kelly Amonte Hiller.
A Massachusetts native, Amonte Hiller—the sister of Blackhawks legend Tony Amonte—arrived in Evanston in 2000 at age 25. She was four years removed from back-to-back national championships playing for the Maryland Terrapins under the celebrated coach Cindy Timchal. Nancy Lyons, at the time Northwestern’s associate director of athletics, had tapped her to revive Northwestern’s program, which had been killed in 1992 for budgetary reasons. “Kelly’s always been a winner,” Lyons explains.
From the start, the young coach showed an uncanny knack for spotting talented players who had been overlooked by established programs. “Maryland had a lot of tall, athletic kids, and everyone tried to copy them,” Amonte Hiller recalls. “By the time I started recruiting, there were no big, fast kids left—only small, fast kids.”
During her first games, Amonte Hiller wound up fielding a team with no one taller than five feet four. But she turned that seeming weakness into a strength by emphasizing speed and athleticism coupled with an aggressive style of play at both ends of the field. Rather than teaching her players to sit back on defense, the standard strategy at the time, she taught them to go after the ball, taking the game to their opponents. And borrowing a hockey tactic, she regularly swapped players in and out to keep them fresher than their rivals.
Most crucially, Amonte Hiller possessed the ability to convince her untested charges that they could play with the best teams out there. “In our first meeting, I told them my long-term goal was winning a national championship,” Amonte Hiller recalls. “Hard work is a key element. Hook them into the vision, and they want to work even harder.”
The hard work paid off. After losing to Virginia in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2004, the Wildcats topped the Cavaliers, 13 to 10, in 2005, becoming the first team outside the Eastern time zone to win a national championship. With five goals in that game, the sophomore midfielder Kristen Kjellman emerged as the tournament’s top player; in the 2006 and 2007 seasons, she became the first player in the nation to win consecutive Tewaaratons.
Northwestern’s success in a sport formerly associated with prep schools and the Ivy League helped ignite a local growth spurt. “Lacrosse has just blown up,” says Peter Collins, who coaches the girls’ team at New Trier High School in Winnetka. It is now the country’s fastest-growing high-school sport; in the Midwest, the number of youths and high-school athletes playing lacrosse has increased by 419 percent since 2001, according to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body.
Some of Amonte Hiller’s former players have moved on to coaching positions at top colleges (including Lindsey Munday, who’s managing the fledgling women’s team at the University of Southern California), taking with them Amonte Hiller’s signature strategies. But with the national tournament looming—scheduled to kick off on May 12—the defending champion Wildcats are the favorites to win another NCAA title. No one knows that better than Timchal, now coach of the women’s lacrosse team at Navy. “Northwestern,” she says, “will still be the team to beat.”
Photography: Peter Hoffman