Lacrosse: Against a rising tide of challenges, Amonte Hiller continues to find success

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Kelly Amonte Hiller has been hearing the “D” word quite a bit lately.

And as silent as the stoic coach is on the subject, there’s no denying it: Northwestern lacrosse is a dynasty.

Ten straight Final Four appearances, seven national championships  five consecutive from 2005 to 2009  and two undefeated seasons as bookends of that championship streak. It’s not just a throne atop the sport — it’s a reign of terror.

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

Few other college programs can claim to have been as good as or better than these Wildcats — The UCLA men’s basketball team of the 1960s and 1970s come to mind — but one that can is the Maryland women’s lacrosse team (for which Amonte Hiller played), with eight championships in 10 years from 1992-2001.

Unlike most other programs with extended runs of success, however, NU is continuing its dominance in the face of an increasingly challenging field of competitors. Women’s lacrosse has expanded tremendously in the past decade, and thanks to an overflow of high school talent, upstart programs are quickly finding success.

Florida lacrosse, for example, first competed in the 2010 season but reached the Final Four just two years later. This season, they bested the Cats in the ALC Championship and played NU wire-to-wire in their losing effort in the NCAA Quarterfinals.

So how does NU just keep winning? Like any good magician, Amonte Hiller won’t quite reveal her trick.

“I really try to stay in the moment and not think about years past,” she said. “I just try to think about today, and all I know is to win a championship is a very difficult thing.”

Ironic words coming from the coach with the second-most championships in NCAA women’s lacrosse history. Coincidentally, the only person with more trophies is Navy’s Cindy Timchal, who helmed the dynastic Maryland squad but began her coaching career at Northwestern in 1982.

Timchal inherited a Terrapins team that was already considered a powerhouse, but Amonte Hiller started from scratch: NU had no women’s lacrosse program from 1993 to 2001. It’s safe to say that the Cats’ success lies in the skills of Amonte Hiller.

She has shown a remarkable knack for recruiting players to the lacrosse team and the Siberian climate of Illinois. Of the 35 players on the roster, only three hail from the Midwest, while a whopping 14 are from the lacrosse hotbed of New York.

Amonte Hiller has also demonstrated a tremendous prowess for developing and getting the most out of her squad. Famously, she recruited two players after seeing them jog past her office. The twins, Courtney and Ashley Koester, had never held lacrosse sticks before in their lives but both went on to be named All-Americans.

Most impressively, an NU athlete received the Tewaaraton Award, given to the nation’s best player, in five of the six seasons from 2006 to 2011. Kristen Kjellman, Hannah Nielsen and Shannon Smith were certainly talented players in their own rights, but it was Amonte Hiller who brought them to NU and helped them realize their full potential.

The best part about it all: Amonte Hiller is just reaching the prime of her coaching career. Whatever her secret is  her game planning, her charisma, those sunglasses  as long as she is coaching the Cats, the kingdom of women’s lacrosse will be ruled from Evanston.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote