The Sideline: Amonte Hiller can’t help but stand out

April 9, 2014

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

Twenty bucks says if you didn’t know who Kelly Amonte Hiller was or what she looked like (or maybe even if you did), you couldn’t spot her during a Northwestern lacrosse practice.

That’s one of Amonte Hiller’s defining characteristics. She has won seven national championships as a coach and two as a player, is the only NU coach to have brought home an NCAA team championship and was recently named to Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 Under 40” list for 2013, just over a decade after moving to the area. Still, she is barely distinguishable from the 20-year-old college students who play for her.

Her commands are almost lost among her players’ whoops of encouragement, which soundtrack NU’s lacrosse practices, and she disappears in the middle of huddles of identical black, purple and white clothing.

At practice on a grey Wednesday afternoon before NU heads east to take on conference rival Penn State and then Pennsylvania, Amonte Hiller breaks from one of those huddles.

She is clad in her usual uniform of baggy athletic pants, a baggier sweatshirt — sometimes a puffy coat, if practice is on Lakeside Field and it’s before mid-April — and face-obscuring sunglasses. She walks over to the sideline, yelling over her shoulder for her team to “run some sprints to get going,” and in talking to her, it becomes clearer how an unassuming woman built the most impressive dynasty in the sport.

She carries herself without a shred of self-importance, yet her small frame and high-pitched voice command attention and respect. Perhaps it’s her reputation, or her ingrained training as an attackman, taught to run headfirst into groups of athletes larger than she carrying metal sticks.

Ultimately, Amonte Hiller couldn’t care less whether you can spot her from across the field, or if you even know her name. She is focused on her team. She is focused on its next win. Nothing else.

The perfect fit

Lacrosse was an attractive sport for NU in the early 2000s, when then-Senior Women’s Administrator Nancy Lyons said the University was looking to add another women’s sport to comply with Title IX.

The sport made sense: It was most popular in East Coast prep schools, where NU was already recruiting academically, but unknown enough to even the playing field for a school in the Midwest. In short, NU could find a few key recruits, Lyons said, and be competitive with the rest of the country.

“It was the kind of sport where we thought that we could be very successful quickly,” Lyons said. “It was something that a lot of young women didn’t have experience with … so we thought we could be competitive right away.”

Lyons, who hails from the same area as Amonte Hiller in Massachusetts, said she had heard of the future coach due to reputation as an athlete and because Lyons knew Amonte Hiller’s brother, Tony Amonte, from her time at Boston University, where Amonte played hockey.

Amonte Hiller had been running lacrosse camps in Massachusetts and was building a reputation for herself among parents of young lacrosse players, Lyons said.

For Lyons, the fact that Amonte Hiller had worked only in volunteer and part-time assistant coaching positions before NU was outweighed by her experience as a two-sport — lacrosse and soccer — All-American at the University of Maryland.

Amonte Hiller had also played for Cindy Timchal, the coach who headed NU’s program during the 1980s, in its first iteration as a varsity sport.

“I knew that she had come from a great coaching background in having played for Cindy Timchal,” Lyons said. “So I just thought, what a great hire that would be if we could bring somebody new into the program with a reputation like Kelly had. She did everything and more that we had anticipated.”

Amonte Hiller said she was reluctant to leave Boston but her husband, Scott Hiller — who now serves as one of the team’s assistant coaches — initially encouraged her to visit Evanston.

Despite Lyons’ faith in Amonte Hiller, the coach still describes her hire as NU taking a chance. But for Lyons, Amonte Hiller — inexperience and all — was the perfect fit.

“At the time, we were hiring a lot of young, fairly inexperienced coaches because at the time, we weren’t paying big salaries. We had to get the very best coach we could with the salary we could afford,” Lyons said. “I knew the kind of person that she was, and I knew her family. I knew if there was anyone who could do the job for us at Northwestern, she could do it.”

Not a fluke

Committed to NU, Amonte Hiller was living with her brother, then the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, when she started coaching the University’s club team for a year in 2001 to prepare for its transition to a varsity squad.

Amonte Hiller said her first few years were less about hard work and more about patience for the process of shaping a varsity-caliber team.

“I’m not afraid of hard work, so that’s not hard to me,” Amonte Hiller said. “I think that in the beginning it really was about just creating that culture. I knew how to create that environment and what I wanted to do, and it was just a matter of teaching discipline and getting the kids to believe in themselves. … It wasn’t hard, it was fun.”

NU played three seasons as a varsity program before it won its first NCAA championship — and then proceed to roll off four more consecutive titles.

Outside recognition didn’t come immediately for Amonte Hiller’s squad. She said that didn’t happen until 2006, just her fifth year as varsity coach. In 2012, Amonte Hiller was inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

“I think that people thought it was kind of a fluke when we won,” she said. “And then when we won the second championship, I think people kind of realized that we’re not kidding around.”

It took less time for the lacrosse world to pay attention.

Lyons said the string of wins put NU in the national spotlight and created success that “trickled down” to the University’s other programs.

With this growth — and tantalizing prospect for success and acclaim — Amonte Hiller said administrators started taking lacrosse more seriously.

“I think with us winning seven in a row, it’s definitely amped up the level of other programs, and the level of professionalism has increased,” Amonte Hiller said. “It needs to continue to get better, but people are taking it seriously. Athletic directors are taking it seriously. People are losing their jobs. People are getting hired. There’s definitely a big investment in our sport no matter where you’re at or what level you’re at.”

More programs, some in non-traditional regions like Florida, California and Colorado, though many still on the East Coast, started cropping up, hoping for quick success similar to Amonte Hiller’s.

NU’s primary rival, Florida, coached by Amanda O’Leary, debuted in 2010.

O’Leary was an assistant coach at Maryland when Amonte Hiller was a freshman on the lacrosse team. She said Amonte Hiller, whom she described as a “once in a lifetime player,” created somewhat of a format.

“What she has done there has been miraculous,” O’Leary said. “It’s not surprising, and I don’t think it’s surprising to me at all with what she was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. … She recruited players who could actually execute her game plans. It was exciting to see her build that program from the ground up and reach the success that she reached in such a short amount of time. If you blueprint a program, that’s the one you want to blueprint after.”

Growing the game

Before she started winning championships, Amonte Hiller was invested, more out of necessity than anything, in spreading the game’s geographic reach. Now, she is almost singlehandedly growing lacrosse.

As a new head coach, Amonte Hiller went after fringe recruits, girls who hailed from outside the traditional lacrosse hotbeds of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

At the beginning of her tenure, NU’s anonymity on the national lacrosse landscape meant low expectations and little pressure, she said.

“It wasn’t too complex. No one thought we were good. I think that in the beginning it really was about just creating that culture,” she said. “I mean, we weren’t getting any top recruits, so it was a little bit easier for me to pick my spots. We got kids that we discovered from camps and took a chance on them. And they came in, and they worked.”

Amonte Hiller said she used her contacts in Massachusetts and former teammates to recruit girls out of her home state at first. She was able to pick through the less sought-after markets — Massachusetts at the time wasn’t yet a prime breeding ground — and recruit talented athletes she could mold into lacrosse players.

Players from smaller markets have continued to speckle NU’s rosters through the years. Program legends such as Kristen Kjellman, recruited out of Massachusetts during the varsity program’s inaugural seasons, and Taylor Thornton out of Texas, helped make NU’s period of success a watershed for lacrosse.

In 2006, the year after NU won its first national championship, 10 players who weren’t from the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast played on Amonte Hiller’s roster. Nine small-market players currently play on her team.

Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Syracuse — the four other teams who have played in the NCAA championship game in the past five years — currently have eight players who hail from outside the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast combined.

Junior midfielder Jess Carroll, from Houston, said Amonte Hiller and Thornton sparked a bit of a revolution in Texas.

“So many girls on my team are looking for D1, which is really awesome because before, no one was doing it,” Carroll said. “Especially with Taylor, once that happened it was like wildfire. All these coaches were coming to Texas and looking at girls. It’s kind of like (Amonte Hiller) started the whole thing.”

Next, in terms of growing the sport, came the graduated players.

That NU has 18 former players or assistant coaches working in Division I lacrosse speaks to an uncanny ability Amonte Hiller has to breed marketable lacrosse coaches.

Former players Lindsey Munday and Hilary Bowen, head and assistant coach at the University of Southern California, as well as Ann Elliot and Hannah Nielsen, head and assistant coach at Colorado, stand as prime examples of Amonte Hiller’s footprint.

NU and Amonte Hiller’s national lacrosse reach comes, in part, from a simple rule: inclusion.

“Especially with the females that I mentored, I tried to get them to the point where they can handle the ins and outs of coaching,” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s not easy every day. There are challenges. There are difficult decisions. You’re dealing with 30-some odd people’s different personal lives. …We make sure our assistants know every little thought that we have in working through decision-making, and I think that’s important for them when they get out there on their own.”

Tunnel vision

Amonte Hiller has a similarly fleshed-out ideology for her players, one that she’s enacted since her first years at NU.

Through their different iterations, Amonte Hiller’s teams strive to focus on what’s in front of them and mentally seal themselves off within a “team bubble,” junior goalkeeper Bridget Bianco said.

They latch onto motivational catch phrases — a popular one at the beginning of this season was “calm is contagious” — and buy into Amonte Hiller’s philosophy, so much so that players and coaches frequently echo each other in pre-game interviews.

Senior defender Kerri Harrington said she wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school but was interested in the program because her older sister played for Amonte Hiller. It was Amonte Hiller’s coaching style that felt comfortable to Harrington.

“She reminded me of my high school coach,” Harrington said. “They love tough. They’re tough on you, but they give you the support and are really great at building your confidence.”

Through the recent ups and downs of the program — NU lost the national title game in 2010 to Maryland and fell in the semifinals in 2013 to North Carolina — Harrington said Amonte Hiller’s strategies, but not style, have changed.

Carroll said Amonte Hiller makes it easy to buy into the team mentality, defending national champions or not.

“It’s not hard to go through the whole year playing lacrosse when you have a sense of purpose,” Carroll said. “She’s really good at keeping you motivated with her presence. She doesn’t really have to do much outside of that.”

Amonte Hiller said it’s gratifying to see that philosophy, her own motivation, reflected in her players. She added it’s not the long list of accolades that’s the best part of her job, but rather being able to include her family in the program and being able to raise her two young daughters in an environment populated with strong female leaders.

It’s the mutual appreciation between NU’s athletic department and Amonte Hiller that led in part to a contract extension through 2021, which the coach signed earlier this year.

Though she happily glows about NU’s administration and the support for the program, start listing her outside accomplishments and Amonte Hiller becomes disinterested. She is not cavalier or disrespectful, just struck with an urge to return to her job, all of a sudden restless.

“Honestly, I really don’t care about that stuff. It doesn’t affect me one iota,” Amonte Hiller said. “For me, the biggest things are my family and the players in my program. They are my family. Going to their weddings, that’s way more momentous than someone else’s opinion of me. There are a couple of cool things that you do — throw the first pitch at the baseball game, things that you can kind of bring your family to that are special — that’s cool. I’m not taking away from these awards because it’s an amazing honor to be honored by these organizations. But for me, it’s more about the people. I like to stay behind the scenes.”

From her seat at the pinnacle of the game, perhaps that’s the one thing Amonte Hiller can’t do.

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