Before the 2002 season, Northwestern lacrosse was not a varsity program. Out on the East Coast, where the sport’s recruiting pipeline begins, high school hopefuls wouldn’t have even the slightest intention of trekking to Evanston.
To fill roster spots, newly appointed head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller resorted to pulling runners off the lakefill, telling them to pick up a lacrosse stick over Winter Break.
“I just got lucky to get a couple kids that really set the tone for this program,” Amonte Hiller said.
Seven NCAA championships, two undefeated seasons and a mere 30 losses later, that tone has definitely been set. Now, Northwestern is the lacrosse program high school players dream of joining, an established name that Amonte Hiller and company continue to feed with new top-caliber commits.
Much of Northwestern’s efforts are aided by annual summer Amonte Sports Camps. With a location in Evanston, the program extends east, where states like New York and Maryland have a stranglehold on producing lacrosse talent.
“It gives us a great opportunity to showcase this place, showcase our players, showcase what a great program we have,” Amonte Hiller said. “It just gives you a little snapshot of what we’re all about.”
But Amonte Sports Camps are just one small part of a complex recruiting equation. Like prospective students applying to colleges, recruits take a myriad of factors into account before committing to a team.
Current players note that visiting Northwestern’s campus helped sell them. Sophomore midfielder Jess Carroll recalled that when she came to campus as a high school player, seeing the school in person and feeling the vibe of the student body helped her to make her decision.
Yet not all factors are tangible. Northwestern’s academic and team atmosphere were key in sophomore goalie Bridget Bianco’s decision. Bianco, a high school All-American and two-time South New Jersey Goalie of the Year, was a highly-recruited prospect, ultimately choosing Northwestern over Notre Dame and Boston College because of the program’s family dynamic.
“The team was very welcoming,” Bianco said. “A lot of the freshmen – they’re my seniors now – really stressed that they didn’t feel like a freshman stepping on the field. That was something that really caught my attention.”
Amonte Hiller knows that Northwestern possesses advantages over other lacrosse programs, including a gorgeous field that overlooks Lake Michigan. But she stresses that Northwestern’s players are also students and need to be able to keep pace academically.
“This is a tough school and they have to be able to meet the standards,” she said. “We have a great track record of success with our student-athletes and we want to keep that.”
Like any other Division I school, the NCAA restricts when Northwestern can talk to high school players. Until Sept. 1 of a girl’s junior year, Amonte Hiller and her staff have to communicate with prospects through travel team coaches.
Amonte Hiller and other coaches email or call to get advice, scouting and eventually set up a one-on-one conversation. The player can then call the coach’s office but cannot pick up calls from the coach.
Even after Sept. 1, Amonte Hiller can only email players or send them physical letters asking them to call her. It isn’t until July, nearly a year later, that Amonte Hiller and her coaches can call personal phone numbers.
Having gone through the recruiting process two decades ago as a player at Maryland, Amonte Hiller provides leadership and valuable experience in gaining commits. Yet much of the recruiting responsibilities are delegated to assistant coaches.
Current players also take a role in recruiting, taking prospective commits to class, showing them around dorms and eating meals with them. They also share their personal recruiting experiences to help the decision-making process.
The Northwestern lacrosse program looks for recruits who are “good people” that can play any position if asked, Amonte Hiller said, adding that “the people that work the hardest are the ones that are most successful in this program.”
If Amonte Hiller and her staff continue to reciprocate that hard work in recruiting, each incoming class has the potential to be the Wildcats’ best one yet.
Northwestern getting better year after year? Now that’s a scary thought.