THE FOLKS still trying to make sense of lacrosse's meteoric rise should have been in the stands in Evanston, Ill., last month when the top-ranked Northwestern women's team played No. 8 Notre Dame. Midway through the first half Northwestern junior midfielder Hannah Nielsen won the draw, sprinted 30 yards and whipped a pass to junior attacker Meredith Frank, who was streaking down the left sideline. When the defense collapsed on Frank, she dished the ball to junior attacker Hilary Bowen, who had stationed herself on the edge of the Fighting Irish crease. In one fluid motion Bowen faked shooting high and then zinged the ball low, past the helpless goalie—"dipping and dunking" in lacrosse parlance.
This is an article from the May 12, 2008 issue
The entire play took six, maybe seven seconds, but it encapsulated much of what it is that we like about sports: speed, skill, guile, power, teamwork, improvisation and execution.
If the crowd reacted to the goal with more polite applause than unleashed enthusiasm, well, the fans can be forgiven. The Northwestern "lax-heads" have grown accustomed to these displays. Arguably the most formidable—surely the most unlikely—dynasty in college sports today, the Wildcats dominate women's lacrosse much the same way green dominates the color scheme of grass. After beating Vanderbilt 14--3 to win the American Lacrosse Conference tournament on Sunday, Northwestern has won 78 of its last 81 games, including the past three national titles (a Cat Trick as it were). Though this was purportedly a rebuilding season for the program—only one senior starts regularly—the Wildcats are the odds-on favorite to win a fourth title when the NCAA tournament starts next week.
What makes their success all the more remarkable is the school's location. For more than 50 years college lacrosse has been the province of select schools on the East Coast. In fact, the Wildcats' 2005 title marked the first time that a program—male or female—from outside the Eastern time zone won a national championship. Northwestern's emergence mirrors lacrosse's general westward expansion; but to many in the establishment, a school nestled in the Chicago suburbs becoming a lacrosse powerhouse is the equivalent of Miami fielding a top skiing program.
INASMUCH AS Northwestern is a rival kingdom, the monarch unquestionably is 34-year-old Kelly Amonte Hiller, Northwestern's coach. The youngest of four siblings in a family of athletes—her older brother, Tony, played in the NHL from 1990 through 2007—Kelly grew up outside Boston playing a variety of sports. At Maryland she was a four-time All-America in lacrosse, leading the Terps to the national title in 1995 and '96, her junior and senior seasons. An athletic and exceptionally intense attacker, she graduated as the program's alltime leading scorer. For good measure, as a freshman, she was an All-America forward in soccer as well.
In 2000 Amonte Hiller was working as an assistant coach at Boston University when Northwestern contacted her about trying to revive the women's lacrosse program, which, because of budget constraints, had been relegated to club status since 1992. She knew little about the school, but her husband, Scott, persuaded her to fly out for the interview. "When I got to the campus, there was the underdog feeling—Northwestern was competing in the Big Ten against all these public schools with huge enrollments—and it fit," she says. "That was going to be my mentality starting a new varsity program away from the East Coast."
Amonte Hiller took the job and, with her husband finishing law school in Boston, spent her first months in Chicago crashing with Tony, then the captain of the Blackhawks. She accompanied him to his hockey practices and took note of everything from training drills to warm-up exercises. She constantly peppered him with questions, such as, If your coach said this, how would you and your teammates react?
Amonte Hiller formulated a three-year plan: "My first recruiting class, I was looking for good kids. For the second I wanted good athletes. For the third I wanted good lacrosse players." In some cases she accelerated the process. Early on she spotted a pair of athletic-looking freshmen playing flag football on the intramural field across the street from her office. "I was like, Wow, they're fast!" Amonte Hiller said of Ashley and Courtney Koester, twins from Indiana. She asked if they had an interest in playing lacrosse. "We're from Indiana! We don't play lacrosse!" they responded. Eventually the twins relented and gave it a shot. "That's one thing about lax," says Amonte Hiller. "If you're fast and have hand-eye coordination, you can get really good in a hurry."
In 2002, the program's maiden varsity season, the Wildcats finished 5--10, but the next two seasons they improved to 8--8 and 15--3. By '05 they were 21--0 and Northwestern's first NCAA championship team since 1941. The twins from Indiana who didn't know a lacrosse stick from an acrostic? They graduated as All-Americas. "The first freshman class came and took a chance," says Amonte Hiller. "When they were seniors and finishing as national champions, it was just storybook stuff."
Though he's only been on the job for two months, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips already says that he will look to women's lacrosse as "a blueprint for building other athletic programs." Among the women's programs west of the Appalachians following in Northwestern's wake are No. 9 Vanderbilt (12--4), No. 17 Denver (13--5) and Oregon (12--7), which counts 18 players from the East Coast on its roster of 30. If the Wildcats provide an instructive model, a sort of Dynasty Building for Dummies, chapter headings might include the following:
An iconic figure in New England lacrosse circles, Amonte Hiller has had particular success mining players in Massachusetts, including Kristen Kjellman, the 2006 and '07 Tewaaraton Trophy winner—the sport's Heisman equivalent. But she scouts beyond the usual pockets. In '05, playing for the U.S. national team against Australia in the World Cup, Amonte Hiller lined up against Nielsen, then 17. Amonte Hiller was impressed and approached Nielsen after the game to ask about her college plans. A year later Nielsen was playing for Northwestern.
Engage the community
When Amonte Hiller isn't coaching or recruiting, she's spreading the gospel of lacrosse throughout the greater Chicago area, running camps and organizing elite junior teams. There's a sense of mission and community service, but there's also a practical component. As the number of girls' high school programs in Illinois has nearly doubled since 2004, Amonte Hiller has strengthened her local recruiting base. "Girls get excited about lacrosse, they go to the games, and they worship the players," says Bill Santulli, an Oak Brook, Ill., health-care executive whose twin daughters, Kendall and Samantha, are freshmen on the Northwestern team. "And they all want to play for Kelly."
Build first-rate facilities
Owing in no small part to the success of Amonte Hiller's teams, Northwestern recently christened Lakeside Field, a 2,000-seat venue with FieldTurf. The stadium abuts Lake Michigan, and the Chicago skyline lingers in the background. Recruits who venture to the Midwest expecting to find lacrosse played on a cornfield are pleasantly surprised.
Pick the right sport
The skeptics are within their rights to point out that if you're going to build a top program, it helps when only 83 other Division I schools offer the sport, as is the case with women's lacrosse. All the more so when you have a dozen athletic scholarships at your disposal while many of your rivals, including all the Ivy League teams, have none. Also, because women's lacrosse is a fledgling sport at the high school level, there is a smaller talent pool; innovative coaches can take inexperienced but athletic students and mold them into elite players—a fact that has made lacrosse attractive to female high school athletes looking for an athletic scholarship.
TO TRAFFIC in understatement, Northwestern's ascent has been met with ambivalence by the sport's traditional powers. The Wildcats are the ambitious nouveau riche moving into the established neighborhood, a bold splash of purple in all that blue blood. On lacrosse message boards the program is routinely referred to as "the Evil Empire." Ask other coaches to comment on Northwestern's success, and you get to see a full complement of clenched teeth. When Northwestern beat Virginia to win its first NCAA title, in 2005, the losing coach, Julie Myers, was asked whether this development was good for the sport of lacrosse. "I guess I should say yes," Myers mumbled, memorably.
At Northwestern, the lax coach is anything but. As one might expect of a team coached by Amonte Hiller, the Wildcats have responded in kind. A perceived East Coast bias has been a source of added motivation. When, for instance, Northwestern played North Carolina on April 20, it became clear at some point that the team's objective went from winning the game to delivering a message. Already ahead 10--2, the Wildcats scored six goals in the final 10 minutes. Meow!
Perhaps because of this sense—real or perceived—that they're still the sport's outsiders, Amonte Hiller and her players consider the program a work in progress. "You could look at [the three titles] and say we're established," says Bowen. "But we feel like we're still building something here."
Though it seems to happen less often with each passing year, Bowen says that when she's back home in Rochester, N.Y., her college choice is still sometimes met with confusion.
"You play for Northeastern? In Boston?"
"In the Midwest."
But, really, there's an easy way to locate the program. Survey the landscape of women's lacrosse and look to the top.
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