Go West, Young Lady
How Kelly Amonte Hiller turned a Northwestern club team into a No. 1 program with staying power, upsetting the Eastern establishment and expanding the sport's reach
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.
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."