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Go West, Young Lady
May 12, 2008
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
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May 12, 2008

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

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Recruit opportunistically
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?"

"No, Northwestern."

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