Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Bridging the gap

There’s a pile of letters – some opened, some unopened – at home waiting for Kristen Waagbo.

But when you’re the top junior for the five-time defending state champions, that’s normal. Especially when you’re a girls’ lacrosse player in Maryland.

Ten of Waagbo’s teammates at Mount Hebron are seniors. All 10 are going to play for Division I programs next year. North Carolina, Rutgers, seven-time defending NCAA champion Maryland – all will have Mount Hebron players on their 2003 rosters.

Sifting through the kind words and desperate pleas from coaches hoping to replenish their rosters is difficult for Waagbo. Sometimes, you just can’t take care of everyone.

“You get these mailed letters from the big East Coast schools,” she said. “You don’t even have time to respond to them, and then you get letters from schools you’ve never heard of and …”

Enter Northwestern. The Wildcats haven’t made a push for Waagbo, but to get a first-year varsity program off the ground and running they’ll likely need players of her caliber. And if you want talent in bunches, there’s only one place to go – east.

“When you think lacrosse, you ultimately think the New Yorks, the Marylands, the Carolinas,” said Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, Waagbo’s coach.

That leaves NU head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller in a bind. While she does have four players coming in from the Midwest next year, it’s not feasible to build a team of locals if Hiller wants to field a competitive team. So she has to take her school colors 1,000 miles away and put on her best sales pitch.

Right in the competition’s backyard.

“Obviously, the big guns tend to be on the East Coast,” Hiller said. “For me, it’s just a matter of building a relationship with the players.”

It’s not impossible to get players to come to the Midwest – evidenced by the fact that 16 of the 19 players currently on NU’s roster come from the East Coast. But the powerhouse programs in the East aren’t just good lacrosse schools – many of them, including the Ivies, are also strong academically.

Since NU often pins its recruiting hopes on its academic reputation, the intellectual might of some of the East Coast schools pulls the rug out from under NU’s efforts.

“It’s just the idea of graduating from an Ivy League school,” said Deanna Knobloch, head coach at Morristown High School in New Jersey, which last year fielded the top prep team in the nation. Knobloch said she would send her players anywhere, but in 11 years, not one has gone further away than Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.

In both Maryland and New England, private school lacrosse is stronger than its public school brethren. Since it’s not unusual for those schools to send graduates to the Ivy League, it’s also an easy fit for lacrosse players.

“They feel that Harvard, Princeton and the other Ivies are the be all and end all,” said Kathleen O’Shea, the head lacrosse coach at Middlesex School, which competes in the same league as Thayer. “New England is a very conservative part of the country, and people who grew up here tend to go to school here and to settle down here.”

Hiller has managed to mine her old high school league for players, but often they’re not the top-notch players. Admitting that going after players like Waagbo might not yield success, Hiller said she has to look for talent that she can mold into a competitive team.

“You want to get that one franchise player,” she said. “But you can get a lot of kids that can make it happen.”

Hiller decided that one of those kids was Erin Flynn. The Concord, Mass., native didn’t play lacrosse until late in her high school career, but she picked up the game quickly enough to convince Hiller to give her – along with twin sister Courtney – a shot.

But coming to play for the Cats was quite a shock for Erin, especially coming from an area where lacrosse is as big a part of the spring sports scene as baseball.

“I’d never even been to the Midwest before,” the NU freshman said, adding that Midwesterners don’t even recognize the game’s equipment. “The airport people are like, ‘Are you part of the band?’ People on the East Coast are like, ‘Oh, you play lacrosse. What school do you play for?'”

Hiller does have one recruiting edge in her favor – her own reputation.

A four-time All-America selection and two-time National Player of the Year at Maryland, Hiller can use her playing days for a big advantage in pulling in the skeptics.

“Kelly had a lot to do with that – just hearing her name,” said Flynn, who said she was resented by some high school teammates for having the chance to play under Hiller. “A lot of girls were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my dream.'”

So while the Waagbos of the world probably won’t end up with the Cats, and while many choose to stay near the Atlantic, Hiller is uncovering a method for bringing in high schoolers.

Even in the Midwest, certain promises pack a punch.

“You have to buy into this type of program,” Hiller said. “You’re going to be an impact player who can make a stamp on Northwestern lacrosse.

“And you’re going to know who the heck we are in a couple of years.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Bridging the gap