Northwestern players celebrate sophomore attacker Madison Taylor’s goal against Denver. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said she looks for players with an underdog mentality on the recruiting trail.
Northwestern players celebrate sophomore attacker Madison Taylor’s goal against Denver. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said she looks for players with an underdog mentality on the recruiting trail.
Daily file photo by Henry Frieman

Lacrosse: Kelly Amonte Hiller guides Northwestern into new era through recruiting

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller never shied away from forging her own path.

After earning soccer and lacrosse All-American honors at Maryland in the 1990s, she took a chance on a dormant program at Northwestern, which she moved halfway across the country to build from the ground up.

“You see it in football, you see it in basketball, you see it in field hockey — everybody is developing their kids,” Amonte Hiller said. “The key to our success is development.”

Eight national championships, four Tewaaraton Award winners and almost 350 victories later, Amonte Hiller has fortified a dynasty few NCAA powerhouses can parallel. As she chases her record ninth national crown this May, Amonte Hiller’s recruiting acumen will be front and center.

In a collegiate landscape largely dominated by the transfer portal, 10 of 12 Wildcat starters entered the program out of high school. Much like Amonte Hiller, many players left traditional East Coast hotbeds to suit up for the midwestern juggernaut.

“You have to be courageous enough to take a chance, do something different,” Amonte Hiller said. “Obviously, we’re a great program, but it’s still a different choice for some people.”

When she and her staff hit the recruiting trail, they’re not always eyeing blue-chip prospects; Amonte Hiller said she couldn’t care less about the number of stars attached to a recruit’s name. The reigning Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association National Coaching Staff of the Year pays recruiting rankings the same attention as national polls — they’re “just someone else’s opinion,” according to Amonte Hiller.

She added that major recruiting lists didn’t include sophomore attacker Madison Taylor in their upper echelon. Taylor now leads all sophomores in the country with a Big Ten-best 77 points in 14 games this season.

For one of the sport’s foremost pioneers, an intangible quality intrigues Amonte Hiller — willpower.

“We really look for that kid that maybe has a bit of that underdog mentality,” Amonte Hiller said. “We pride ourselves on that and people who we feel we can develop. It takes a great attitude to develop. It takes great athleticism, teamwork. There’s a lot of characteristics we look for.”

With a golden generation set to depart NU this summer, a new crop of recruits must help fill their lofty shoes. But, the groundwork for the incoming class of ’Cats began long before last season’s national title run.

More than two years before prospects will don their respective college colors, coaches can begin contacting and offering high school students on Sept. 1 of their junior year.

Attacker and midfielder Jenna Soto, a Long Island, New York, native, committed to Georgetown Sept. 21, 2022. However, Soto reopened her recruitment just weeks before November 2023’s National Signing Day. And, in stepped the reigning NCAA champions.

“This whole time between me committing to Georgetown up until I committed to Northwestern, I totally changed as an athlete and a person,” Soto said. “I always knew I wanted to achieve above and beyond, but when I really opened my eyes to see how much work and dedication it takes to be a Division I athlete … I was able to realize that I wanted more.”

Akin to Amonte Hiller’s developmental aspirations, assistant coach Scott Hiller spearheaded Soto’s recruitment process on a time-crunch, bookending NU’s 2024 recruiting class with its 11th and final commit.

Four hundred and ten days separated the team’s first and last commitments, embodying Amonte Hiller’s faith in the process.

“As a recruiter, you have to be diligent and do your homework because if you don’t, it can really hurt,” Amonte Hiller said.

Meshing pieces into a complete group

There’s no player mold that jumps off Amonte Hiller’s evaluation sheet. She said a major team-building facet revolves around constructing a cohesive unit packed with abundant archetypes.

“We try to hone in position-by-position and the way we like to coach and play the game,” Amonte Hiller said. “For instance, on the offensive end, you see someone like Erin Coykendall. She’s not as fast as maybe Jane Hansen, but she has this skill set that is just undeniable. It’s a Steph Curry-type situation.”

Player personalities are paramount in sustained success, Amonte Hiller added. On-field ability doesn’t form the quintessential element of a prospect’s potential.

For Soto, the emphasis beyond the game was especially pertinent.

“The other schools are just looking for you to come in and be their superstar lacrosse player, and they never really asked how you are or how your mentality is,” Soto said. “When I went to Northwestern, before they even talked about my lacrosse (ability), they realized how my mentality was … how much I pushed myself.”

Incoming attacker and midfielder Bricín Mahoney said the ’Cats’ 2024 class reflects a sustained effort from NU’s staff to build a complementary group.

A Colorado native, Mahoney helps form a class of players encompassing four different time zones.

“Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff work to get not just great players, but great people and great families,” Mahoney said. “You can tell they really spend the extra time to go after not just those ‘top recruits,’ but they make sure to look at the whole package. … My recruiting class, we instantly clicked the first time we met.”

Amonte Hiller and her staff meticulously analyze film and live action from club and high school games, but she said there’s only so much she can take away from afar.

Away from the jam-packed summer showcase sidelines teetering with scouts, Amonte Hiller said she prefers the hands-on coaching that camps provide.

“Getting to work with kids at camp is a must,” Amonte Hiller said. “You can show a certain way on video, but our next step is to get them out and work with them. We’re very involved in the teaching of the camps, so we can see how coachable they are, how they learn. Are they adaptable? How do they seek feedback? That type of stuff is really important to us.”

While the coaching staff is heavily involved in the school’s summer camps, current players also help direct the high-octane sessions.

Mahoney, who attended an Amonte Hiller camp on the Evanston campus, said she received significant personalized feedback during her recruiting process that stemmed from her camp performance.

‘Want people that want to be here’

When the clock strikes midnight on Sept. 1, the Division I landscape becomes engulfed in a recruiting frenzy. Coaches across the country hastily attempt to land their tier-one prospects, resulting in countless calls, texts and emails.

Both Mahoney and midfielder Hannah Rudolph said they received recruitment videos from an exuberant Amonte Hiller inside Ryan Fieldhouse once their contact windows opened in 2022. 

Amonte Hiller said her pace on the recruiting trail depends on specific scenarios, but she and her staff don’t pressure expeditious decisions. She, Hiller and assistant coach Alexis Venechanos serve as primary recruiters, while assistant coach Charlie Leonard also helps throughout the process. 

“We want people that want to be here — and want to be here for the right reasons,” Amonte Hiller said. “We want them to really feel without a shadow of a doubt that this is the place for them.”

Some programs utilize commitment deadlines to draw potential recruits to their schools. With this tactic, a coach extends an offer but will only honor the commitment by a designated date. Amonte Hiller said NU doesn’t engage in this practice.

When another program gave Mahoney a deadline, she texted Amonte Hiller and her assistants looking to expedite her campus visit date. Mahoney said Amonte Hiller welcomed her to Evanston “without hesitation” the next day.

“Kelly would never even consider giving you a deadline,” Mahoney said. “She knows that if you want to go to Northwestern, if you know you belong here, you don’t need that extra pressure.”

While Amonte Hiller said the school’s facilities and campus speak for themselves, she makes sure to take recruits around Evanston and its surrounding areas. She said she looks to display a small sample of the many possibilities the city has to offer.

Wilmette’s Hotcakes has become the Lake Show’s go-to breakfast spot for its prospective players and their families.

Amonte Hiller said Hotcakes is her “biggest must-hit” restaurant, but she and her staff rotate through a bevy of eateries on tours. Rudolph, who played under Amonte Hiller during the summer and fall with the U.S. U20 Training Team, said her visit left a lasting impression.

“I could really imagine myself being in that facility every day and bettering myself,” Rudolph said of her visit. “She took my dad and (me) to a couple of restaurants, and I’m a big foodie, so she really spoke to my heart.”

Decades of lessons learned and future visions

More than two decades after guiding the ’Cats from the club level to the nation’s pinnacle, Amonte Hiller boasts bountiful tales from the recruiting trail. She was one of the first coaches to recruit in Texas, landing superstar defender Taylor Thornton. Former goalscoring phenom Selena Lasota came to NU from British Columbia.

Through all the success stories and even her misses, Amonte Hiller said belief in herself has been the biggest lesson along the way.

“I really feel like I have a good instinct on people and the people that would fit within our program and under our leadership,” she said. “Just trusting that — trusting when it’s right and when it’s not right — that’s really the key.”

With more programs emerging every season alongside a greater diversity of talent apart from traditional hotbeds, Amonte Hiller lauded the parity the game’s growth has provided. The University of South Florida, Charlotte, Mercyhurst and Rhode Island will each field Division I women’s lacrosse teams for the first time in 2025, while Florida State and Austin Peay will begin play the following season.

Amonte Hiller said the new upstart programs are “awesome” for the sport.

“There is a spot for everyone, and it doesn’t matter how quickly you got recruited, or what your ranking was,” Amonte Hiller said. “If you’re determined, and you’re willing to learn and work hard, you can do anything you want to do.”

As for the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness policy and the transfer portal, Amonte Hiller said the new wave of college athletics has certainly seeped into the lacrosse sphere, but she’s focused on driven players who want to join her program for the right reasons. 

While recruiting continues to evolve each season, Amonte Hiller’s advice to collegiate hopefuls centers around trusting the process.

“Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing,” Amonte Hiller said. “Everyone’s got their own timing. Just trust that timing and trust in your abilities, and know that you’ll land where you’re supposed to land.”

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