PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER
Kelly Amonte Hiller has Northwestern as the No. 1 seed for this weekend's NCAA championship. Her career has bookended the 25-year history of USA Lacrosse.
Thu May 25 2023 | Clare Lochary and Matt DaSilva | College
College Women Northwestern
One year before USA Lacrosse was formed, Kelly Amonte Hiller won her first world championship as a player, helping the U.S. claim gold in 1997. At the last women’s U19 world championship in 2019, Amonte Hiller was the coach that brought back the world title to the USA.
In between those signature moments she’s helped revolutionize the game, winning seven national championships as a head coach at Northwestern. She has Northwestern as the No. 1 seed for this weekend’s NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship and then a few weeks later will begin the selection process for the 2024 U.S. Women’s U20 National Team where she will once again coach the U.S. women.
As part of the 25th anniversary of USA Lacrosse, we’re looking back at some of our biggest stories from the magazine in that era. Amonte Hiller was named the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2008 in the midst of those title runs. Here’s an excerpted version of our December 2008 cover story when we examined the career of one of the most impactful individuals in the sport’s history.
*. *. *
Defender Christy Finch unexpectedly found herself charging to the goal during the 2008 NCAA Championship game. Penn dared her to shoot, and with a lane wide open, she did.
Finch accomplished some amazing things in her collegiate lacrosse career, not the least of which was getting her stoic head coach, Kelly Amonte Hiller, to crack a smile during a national championship game. Amonte Hiller did just that as Finch slipped a rare goal past Sarah Waxman to give Northwestern an 8-3 lead in the second half of an eventual 10-6 victory.
Prompting that flicker of a grin is at least as impressive as being a Tewaarton finalist. Amonte Hiller has a world-class game face, with eyes shielded by designer sunglasses and her mouth set in a grim line. The world shrinks down to 120 by 70 yards. Time stops.
But seeing Finch, known more for checks and yellow cards than goals, have a breakout moment brought Amonte Hiller back to a spring day in 2006. Finch, a raw but talented sophomore out of Ohio, was going through the motions in practice. Amonte Hiller yanked her to the sidelines and asked her why she was throwing her talent away.
“Christy, I don’t understand. If you worked hard, you could be an All-American. You could be Defender of the Year,” Amonte Hiller remembers telling Finch. “You have so much potential and you’re just…rolling.”
Finch was stunned, not so much by the criticism but by the expectations.
“When she says something, you believe it,” Finch, who indeed became a two-time national defender of the year, says now.
So how could Amonte Hiller help but beam when Finch scored just her third goal in three years?
“Everyone had smiles on their faces, including myself, which I don’t usually do too much during games,” says Amonte Hiller.
What Amonte Hiller usually does during games is win. She is 111-24 in eight seasons as a head coach, including a 21-1 record and fourth consecutive NCAA Division I title in 2008. Northwestern has stretched the boundaries of lacrosse – tactically, geographically and, some say, ethically.
In 2008, Amonte Hiller was as polarizing as any figure in lacrosse.
Fans appreciated how the Wildcats responded after losing 2007 Tewaaraton winner Kristen Kjellman to graduation and having Meredith Frank slowed by a torn Achilles tendon; and how Amonte Hiller has built a tight-knit community of players and alumni that has raised the bar for success in the lacrosse world and for Northwestern athletics at large.
Detractors accused her of running up scores and perpetuating a style of play that could one day have women wearing helmets. Most recently, she opposed IWLCA legislation that sought to curtail early recruiting, such as offering scholarships to high school juniors, a practice some say she started.
“If people want to put this on me because we’re successful, you know, that’s fine,” says Amonte Hiller. “But really, truly I’m looking out for the expansion of the sport. And there’s a lot of things that we could do to help this sport grow, and right now the things that we’re doing are making it more exclusive.”
Northwestern’s signature tactic is its high-pressure defense, a simple and relentless strategy that makes other teams uncomfortable and opportunistically pounces on their mistakes. You can’t get complacent.
Kelly Amonte Hiller never gets complacent – not on herself, her team or her sport.
One fall day in 2000, Amonte Hiller’s husband and volunteer assistant coach Scott Hiller gazed upon Northwestern lacrosse practice and thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
The Wildcats were practicing on Floyd Long Field, an unfenced, muddy patch of earth near the edge of Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Ill. The coaches battled the school marching band about who had first dibs on the space, and eventually they settled for sharing the field. Missed passes abounded, sending balls bouncing between cars onto nearby Sheridan Road, the campus main drag, as the band comically tooted away.
Coming to Northwestern was Scott’s idea. When then-athletic director Rick Taylor called to inquire if Kelly was interested in resurrecting a program once axed for budgetary reasons, she initially scoffed at the idea. The Hillers were newlyweds, happily ensconced in her hometown of Boston. Scott was in law school, although Kelly’s career hadn’t settled into a recognizable shape.
After graduating from Maryland in 1996, with two national championships and two national player of the year awards to her credit, Amonte Hiller worked for Brine and bounced as an assistant between Brown, UMass and Boston University in just four years.
Amonte Hiller had ideas. Few were willing to listen. She took business classes and briefly explored becoming a professional triathlete before she got the call from Northwestern in summer 2000. She said no thanks.
But Scott had spent eight years as an assistant at Harvard, and knew head coaching jobs were hard to come by. At his urging, Kelly visited Northwestern’s campus, where large boulders line the Lake Michigan shoreline that leads southward towards the Chicago skyline, and fell in love.
Amonte Hiller knew how to run a practice, but had no idea how to navigate the red tape of intercollegiate athletics. Her college nickname was Killer. It took time to adjust to the pace of bureaucracy.
When senior women’s administrator Norren Morris arrived at Northwestern in 2004, she says she and Amonte Hiller “butted heads” at first. “We tried to say, ‘Let’s not run through the wall; let’s a build a door and open it.’”
Thus the Hillers found themselves on Floyd Long Field, their voices drowned out by a marching band. Scott wondered what they had gotten into, but Kelly had just hit her stride.
“There’s always that next level. My dad really ingrained that in me.”
— Kelly Amonte Hiller
These days, the Wildcats don’t have to negotiate with the band for practice space. In 2008, they inaugurated Lakeside Field, a beautiful, $2 million facility funded entirely by the university. Philip Hersh, a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune, called it “the House that Kelly Built,” a home for the unlikely lacrosse family she has created in Evanston.
Family is important to Amonte Hiller, who grew up in Hingham, Mass. on a block populated by a huge network of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Her father, Lewis Amonte, was a construction worker until a heart condition forced him to retire while still in his early 30s. He stayed at home and encouraged his four children to excel at athletics. It was their best chance to get an education, and to push themselves a little further in life.
Kelly played soccer, basketball and lacrosse at the Thayer Academy. Her talent surfaced early. The school’s basketball coach tore a knee ligament trying to mark her in practice. Lisa Miller, now the head coach at Harvard, lured Amonte Hiller into lacrosse and coached her as a freshman at Thayer at the same time Miller was training for the U.S. team.
“More than anything, it’s probably embarrassing for me,” Miller says now, “because she was 14 and using me like a cone.”
When Sports Illustrated did state-by-state rankings of the 50 greatest athletes in history, Kelly Amonte Hiller was No. 21 on the Massachusetts list. Her brother, Tony Amonte, a five-time NHL All-Star, did not make the cut.
“There’s always that next level,” Amonte Hiller says. “My dad really ingrained that in me.”
To bring lacrosse to the next level, Amonte Hiller has emphasized innovative stick work. Mary Ann Meltzer, the head coach at rising Division I program Detroit Mercy, first caught a Wildcats practice – where partner passing might evolve into swatting the ball backhanded to the ground and returning it at waist level – when Amonte Hiller invited her to Evanston last season.
“It’s almost like with the ball, there’s a magnet,” Meltzer says.
After Northwestern handled Detroit Mercy in a scrimmage this fall, Amonte Hiller reminded Meltzer of where her program once was, and encouraged her to remain creative and persistent. It’s the only way to rattle the East Coast establishment.
“I could list off hundreds of thousands of drills that we’ve done in the past three years,” says Frank, a rising senior with the Wildcats, “but I can guarantee that we’re probably not going to do any of those this year.”
Even Hilary Bowen, the MVP of the 2008 NCAA championship game, marvels at the complexity and ingenuity of Northwestern’s offense.
“You feel like you’re in second grade again,” she says, “trying to learn how to play a sport.”
By comparison, Northwestern’s high-pressure defense was a simple development, born of necessity in the program’s early days. Amonte Hiller wanted to create an edge for her athletic, but sometimes inexperienced, players, so she borrowed from basketball and modified a full-court press for lacrosse.
The ripple effect of Amonte Hiller’s success is evident in Evanston. Before the lacrosse boom, the Northwestern athletic department was a slightly sleepy place with a single championship to its credit – men’s fencing in 1941. It’s tough for a small private school to compete in the Big 10, but recently things have been on the upswing. No other Wildcats have won a championship just yet, but Northwestern women’s tennis ascended to a No. 1 national ranking in 2008, the first cold-weather program to do so. The softball team went to the Women’s College World Series. Men’s soccer and men’s golf were both ranked No. 6 in the nation at press time, and football was in the top 25.
“There’s no question that she set the bar very high,” says Mark Murphy, Northwestern athletic director from 2003 to 2007 and current general manager of the Green Bay Packers. “She was very helpful for me to say, ‘Look at what our lacrosse team has accomplished in such a short period of time.’”
Amonte Hiller’s talent for thinking big has transcended the lacrosse field, thanks to Jaclyn Murphy, a young lacrosse fan diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, in March 2004 at the age of 9.
Dennis Murphy, Jaclyn’s father, balks at the idea that Amonte Hiller as a polarizing figure. “Yeah, she’s very selective of who comes into her circle of friends,” he says. “But I can’t even possibly put in words what she’s meant to my family.”
The ninth floor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City houses the famous clinic’s pediatric cancer ward. Dennis describes the ninth floor as “the most depressing place on earth.” It’s floor full of sick kids enduring treatments just barely better than death. But when Jaclyn goes in for a round of chemotherapy, she’s bombarded with phone calls and text messages from the Northwestern girls.
“It just took her away from that place,” said Dennis. “We’ve lost a lot of friends. Jaclyn doesn’t really have any friends, because of treatment and everything like that. The Wildcats are her friends.”
One day in 2005, another patient asked Jaclyn who was calling her so often. Jaclyn gazed at the other little girl, who looked painfully ill and was hooked up to an IV. She turned to her father.
“Dad, we’ve got to get her a team.”
Fast-forward three years, and Jaclyn is in remission, and Friends of Jaclyn, a nonprofit founded by Dennis to link pediatric brain tumor patients with college athletes, has 70 kids adopted by teams from 18 different sports. As a fundraiser, Amonte Hiller has collaborated with Brine to create a special commemorative stick with the FOJ logo, a jaunty string of pink elephants (symbols of good luck, good health, and good memories). Dennis Murphy wants to make the FOJ pink elephant as ubiquitous as the pink breast cancer ribbon. St. Bonaventure’s women’s lacrosse team has already outfitted the entire team with FOJ sticks, and the Wildcats will carry a special edition version.
“They don’t know the impact they’re having on the brain tumor community,” Dennis Murphy says. “Friends of Jaclyn, it’s across the country. They have parents and children who are depressed who are coming out of the house and saying, ‘It’s OK. I have a brain tumor, but it’s OK.’”
PHOTO BY KEVIN P. TUCKER
Kelly Amonte Hiller was selected as the Lacrosse Magazine Person of the Year in 2008.
Northwestern has lost just three games since 2005, but that statistic is less absurd than the figure that follows those losses: three wins by a combined score of 54-18. Vindictive much?
For all the grumbling about Northwestern running up scores, there were some close calls during the 2008 season.
After watching his sister’s team edge a soft Johns Hopkins team, 14-12, on April 18, Tony Amonte told Kelly: “Man, they’re just looking for a way to lose.”
Nine days later, they did.
Thanks to Waxman, the chest-thumping goalie who on the eve of facing Northwestern crowed, “Bring it on,” and relentless ball possession, Penn ended the Wildcats’ 36-game winning streak with an 11-7 victory. Amonte Hiller couldn’t even call a time out during the shut-out second half because the Wildcats never had the ball long enough.
After such a loss, you might expect the purple paint to peel from the walls of her office, but Amonte Hiller met defeat with a sense of renewal.
The Penn loss came on a Sunday. The team had Monday off. They gathered Tuesday morning at the Evanston Boxing Club, as they have every Tuesday for the last three years. The sound of gloved fists hitting heavy bags thudded across the gym.
“It wasn’t lacrosse, but it was a way to get out what you wanted to get out,” Bowen says.
For her part, Amonte Hiller purged the playbook. Instead of threading needles, the Wildcats went back to basics between the lines, a return to the raw athleticism that defined the program when they played on a dirt field shared with the marching band.
Four weeks later, Finch flew towards the goal and beat Waxman to put the definitive stamp on Northwestern’s dynasty, and Amonte Hiller smiled.
“Outsiders would say that she’s a loner,” Bowen says of her coach. “I think it’s more that she’s a leader.”
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