Lacrosse: Northwestern’s limitless legacy sees sport skyrocket at local level

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and assistant coach Scott Hiller speak during then-No. 4 Northwestern’s victory against Marquette on Feb. 19. Amonte Hiller has helped usher in a major lacrosse boom in Illinois for more than two decades.
Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and assistant coach Scott Hiller speak during then-No. 4 Northwestern’s victory against Marquette on Feb. 19. Amonte Hiller has helped usher in a major lacrosse boom in Illinois for more than two decades.
Daily file photo by Henry Frieman

During the late 1990s, a legion of lacrosse legends descended upon Winnetka’s Skokie Playfields to coach a youth clinic. Several dozen players, many of whom hardly — if ever — had grasped a stick, got to learn from the sport’s brightest minds and premier talents.

It was there that current Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller first crossed paths with a man who would eventually go on to build a high school lacrosse dynasty: Loyola Academy coach John Dwyer III. The two exchanged contact information but couldn’t have foreseen the boundless impact they’d have on the local game.

“She brought a star-studded cast of then-Maryland players; one of them was (now-Loyola-Maryland coach) Jen Adams, which is amazing when you think about the little town here in Winnetka that we had such quality coaching for a raw beginners’ clinic,” Dwyer said. 

Months after Amonte Hiller’s first skills sessions, the rumor mill began churning. The Wildcats women’s lacrosse program, which had disbanded in 1993, seemed back on its way to varsity competition.

With three young daughters enamored with the game, Dwyer approached then-NU athletic director Rick Taylor to inquire about the potential program’s progress. Rick Taylor confirmed the rumors, but he said the school was far from selecting a coach.

For Dwyer, the perfect candidate — who’d eventually coach his youngest daughter from 2018 to 2022 — was just a stone’s throw away.

“I said, ‘I’ll give you one coach you might want to at least talk to,’” Dwyer said. “I gave him Kelly’s contact information, and he goes ‘Wait a minute, is this the same Amonte family from Massachusetts?”

Less than two months later, the ’Cats had their head coach. Amonte Hiller was officially introduced into the role on July 24, 2000.

Six miles southeast of her clinic site, Amonte Hiller built a perennial powerhouse from scratch, forever transforming the game’s local landscape — and impacting countless individuals in the process.

Bridging the gap between college and local programs

Looking for insight from the reigning national champions, Hinsdale Central High School coach Matt McNiff emailed Amonte Hiller and her staff to gauge the possibility of a professional development session before his Spring 2024 season. McNiff said Amonte Hiller’s rapid response rattled him.

She quickly put McNiff in contact with Kiera Shanley, NU’s director of lacrosse operations. After back-and-forth correspondence, the ’Cats welcomed McNiff and his coaching staff into Ryan Fieldhouse for an early February practice. 

“We came into their beautiful facility, watched a practice (and) they gave us a few pointers,” McNiff said. “Our offensive coach met with their offensive coach, our defensive coach met with their defensive coach, but what a remarkable experience that was.”

NU staff consulted with McNiff and his colleagues during each break, firing off questions and running concepts by the high school staff. 

He said Amonte Hiller and her staff treated his staff as equals, despite being, as he put it, the “best coaching staff in the country.”

“Having accessibility like that is remarkable,” McNiff said. “We look up to coaches like that. They’re heroes to us. She’s done a great job with that staff. Very calm, wonderful people, very deep teachers on the field — it’s exactly what you want to see in a coach.”

According to New Trier High School coach Pete Collins, Amonte Hiller has long made herself accessible to local coaches — even when fewer than a dozen high schools fielded squads. Now, the figure eclipses the 80-team mark.

Collins said he, Dwyer and a few other local coaches reached out to Amonte Hiller, looking to improve their programs and help grow the game. He said Amonte Hiller was always quick to ask how she could help. She held coaching clinics and recruited local coaches to help with her Wildcat Elite Club.

“The opportunities have been tremendous, just having Northwestern here,” Collins said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have two graduates in our program, (Colorado coach Ann Eliott Whidden) and Carli Harpel.”

For Lewis coach Colleen Kincaid, an Evanston native who played goalie for Amonte Hiller and assistant coach Alexis Venechanos on their Wildcat Elite team in the early 2000s, the NU staff’s impact extends far beyond coaching a championship-caliber group.

Kincaid, the former Illinois High School Association Girls Lacrosse Coach of the Year at Maine South High School, said the ’Cats’ coaches are consistently open with how they operate their program.

“We’ve always been invited to come to their clinics and come learn their drills,” Kincaid said. “It’s really valuable for us to be able to use them as a resource … That’s really helped grow the game at lower levels, where we’re teaching a higher level of lacrosse to younger ages.”

Club-level expansion — Team One and beyond

While NU captured its seventh national championship in Stony Brook, New York in 2012, Glenview-based club Team One expanded its operations to girls’ lacrosse. In its inaugural season, the program had just 20 players participating. 

Several years later, Team One merged with Amonte Hiller’s Wildcat Elite program. Team One club executive director and former NU soccer standout David Roth said the decision was a no-brainer.

“We all came together and said what was best for girls’ lacrosse in Illinois,” Roth said. “Instead of having two programs and splitting resources and time, it was in the best interest of everybody to say ‘All right, let’s put all our eggs into one basket.’”

During the 11-year span that separated national titles seven and eight for the ’Cats, Team One’s girls’ program expanded to more than 1,000 players.

All the while, Amonte Hiller’s facilities and feedback have been readily available to the program, according to Kelly Kubach, the club’s girls’ lacrosse director and former Michigan defender.

“We’ve had the privilege in previous years to train at Ryan Fieldhouse and have the Northwestern coaching staff at our practices,” Kubach said. “Not only were they able to educate our coaching staff but also impact our player development … (Amonte Hiller) has always been a great resource that wants us to learn from her … and better the game of lacrosse in the area.”

Roth estimated that total club player volume has increased by “five to 10 times” in the past decade, and more club and travel teams continue to enter the fold every year. With more programs and players emerging in the area, in-game competition now extends to elementary school years.

This includes East Ave Lacrosse, which started a girls’ program in 2017 with girls’ travel director and now-Fenwick High School coach Tracy Bonaccorsi’s help. When Bonaccorsi started coaching high school lacrosse in Illinois seven years ago, just two players had played at any level. Now, Bonaccorsi said, 80-90% of her players join her team with prior playing experience.

“Growing up, it was an all or nothing thing … you’re either putting (down) thousands of dollars or you’re not doing anything but playing for your high school team,” Bonaccorsi said. “Now there’s a bunch of different clubs being able to offer different levels of lacrosse based on ability and wants.”

‘Why we play’: Inspiring the next generation

As NU took down Marquette Feb. 19, Bonaccorsi’s East Ave players participated in the pregame stick line and caught glimpses of the game’s most sensational stars right before their eyes. 

Bonaccorsi said it took watching just one game last season for many of her players to get hooked on the Lake Show.

“We see girls wearing Northwestern Lacrosse shirts now at practice, and it’s just putting the opportunity in front of them … and the parents to be like ‘You could drive 40 minutes up the road and see the best team in the country,’” she said. 

The girls saw just that at the Marquette game. Spanning large sections of sold-out silver stands, area high school and club players supported some of their former peers on the Golden Eagles and watched sophomore attacker Madison Taylor score six points in a dazzling display.

The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year said the opportunity to inspire young players isn’t something she takes for granted.

“We always talk about it in practice, but that’s why we play — to play for the younger generation,” Madison Taylor said. “It’s such a great feeling when they come up to you after the game, you’re like ‘Wow, I really did make an impact on those little girls.’”

Many of the ’Cats serve as volunteer coaches for local youth programs, including senior defender Kendall Halpern at Team One and graduate student attacker Erin Coykendall at Lakeshore Lacrosse.

Lakeshore Lacrosse CEO and Benet Academy coach Amanda Kammes said these role models are essential for female athletes.

“The thing that drives young kids — young girls specifically — to be motivated is to have mentors to look up to,” Kammes said. “Little boys have so many mentors in that capacity kind of built in … having Erin, the Tewaraaton Finalist, come out and actually work with them is just invaluable to our girls.”

Kubach, who capped her collegiate career in 2017, said the sport’s national growth and media coverage allows players to serve as pioneers of the game in unparalleled fashion.

With heightened competition and parity, she said players like graduate student attacker Izzy Scane bring a new wave to the sport that every young player in Illinois should be able to witness as much as possible.

“We are seeing a version of lacrosse we have not seen before,” Kubach said. “We’re seeing players that are trailblazers.”

A boundless legacy

Despite decades between her dynasty’s inception and its current reign, one thing remains apparent for Amonte Hiller: The eight-time national champion has established a bona fide winning machine that’s become a model for programs to try to emulate.

From all levels of collegiate lacrosse, club programs and high school squads, adopting the NU mold’s tenets has proven paramount. 

“We see success on the field, but they really are tremendous people and great coaches,” Kincaid said of Amonte Hiller’s staff. “As a head coach, I try to recreate that experience for my players. I try to be more like the ’Cats every single day if we can.”

Amonte Hiller won her first seven national titles in the pre-shot-clock era, adapting and rewriting how the game ought to be played once the NCAA implemented the 90-second shot clock in 2017.

Even amid a 11-year title drought, Amonte Hiller dished out game-changing advice to Roth, who shifted his entire approach at Team One. While she’d experienced mounting pressure and pitfalls in consecutive NCAA Tournaments, Amonte Hiller told the club executive that she was redirecting her energy back onto the field and advised him to do the same.

Since then, Roth and his colleagues have spent less time in the office and honed in on practice planning and relationship-building. He said the advice from a “lacrosse savant” like Amonte Hiller has yielded remarkable results — both on and off the field.

“Kelly’s just a general role model to female athletes … and she was instrumental in helping us grow our club,” Roth said. “She is the GOAT. Scotty (Hiller) might be the perfect complement to the GOAT. The kids, when they see her, it’s like a celebrity, and that just makes them want to play more.”

As Amonte Hiller looks to add another national title to her resume and break her mentor’s — Navy coach Cindy Timchal — Division I record in the process, she’s cemented a legacy as a champion of the sport’s growth.

Some 25-plus years ago, that legacy was fortified in Evanston by way of a chance encounter between two future legendary coaches — a 15-time high school state champion coach at Loyola Academy and the conqueror of the collegiate status quo.

“She’s one of the most influential people I know,” Dwyer said. “There’s been a few people that have helped me tremendously over the years, and Kelly would be right at the top of that list.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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