To go inside Kelly Amonte Hiller's practices is to understand Northwestern lacrosse's success.
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday when I walk into the Nicolet Football Center, where the girls are paired up for their weekly judo workout on the indoor football field.
Amonte Hiller, in her 14th season as head coach, stands off to the side chatting with her assistant coaches while she DJs for the team’s workout. Of course, she chooses Centuries by Fall Out Boy, the unofficially official song of Northwestern Athletics.
"Think you could keep up with these girls?" assistant director of athletic communications Kyle Kelley asks me as we watch them flip up backwards into handstands supported by their partners. I just shake my head incredulously.
After finishing the judo routine, the girls all gather on one sideline. A player stands alone about 10 yards out and repeatedly attempts to stop her teammates – one after another – from getting past her to the other side, much like a football player attempting to make an open-field tackle. It’s all in good fun, but the competitiveness is unmistakable.
Scott Hiller, Kelly's husband and assistant coach for all 14 years and counting, comes out and pretends like he’s going to join in. The girls yell in excitement ("Scotty!"), but he just gathers them in for a huddle.
"Scott could run his own Division-I program," Kelley says. (I believe it. Scott won a pair of Major League Lacrosse coach of the year awards with the Boston Cannons in the early 2000s.)
Watching the girls go through their intense workouts and observing the camaraderie between everyone on the field, it's easy to understand why Northwestern lacrosse has seven NCAA National Championships under Amonte Hiller. Even in simple practice drills, the team works cohesively as a single unit.
"They’re disciplined, cerebral, well coached and just very difficult to play against because they're super prepared and ready for anything,” says Gary Gait, head coach of the Syracuse women’s lacrosse team and Amonte Hiller’s former mentor from her days at Maryland. “I think it comes from all their hard work and the effort she puts in to prepare her team. It truly shows during games."
Last year, Gait’s team beat Northwestern for the first time since 2003, snapping an 11-game winning streak for the Wildcats over the Orange that included the 2012 NCAA Championship title game. It was one of seven defeats for Amonte Hiller’s squad in 2014, the most single-season losses for the team since that 2003 season. As women’s lacrosse programs around the country are stepping up their game – largely a result of Amonte Hiller’s transformation of the sport – victory hasn’t come quite as easily for Northwestern, which lost seven games during its seven title-winning seasons combined.
But Amonte Hiller shakes off any notion that her team is slipping. (Perhaps the best indication of success is if a team makes it to the semifinal game of the NCAA Tournament and is seen as a disappointment.) She points to Northwestern’s strong finish last season, and the team’s top-ranked recruiting class in the nation – 14 freshmen! – doesn’t hurt either.
"We definitely didn't have the regular season we wanted to, but I think that towards the end of the season, we really turned things around,” Amonte Hiller says. “We were really proud of that group last year.”
Can we expect Northwestern to contend for an eighth national title, or are the ‘Cats trending downward as other programs continue to pick up steam? We might find the answer by looking back to the last time Amonte Hiller came into the season in need of a rebound: her beginning years with the team.
When she first took the job, it would have been easy for Amonte Hiller to start thinking ahead and put pressure on herself to quickly rebuild a young program. In the fall of 2000, then-athletic director Rick Taylor and Senior Women's Administrator Nancy Lyons took a gamble, hiring a coach who less than five years ago had still been taking classes as an undergraduate at Maryland and had four total seasons of coaching experience, all as an assistant.
Bringing in a young coach to jump-start a program that had been inactive for nine years (the University shut down the team due to budget cuts after the 1992 season) might have been a bit of an unconventional move, but it worked – big time. Amonte Hiller stayed grounded by focusing on what she could control. She targeted the faster, shorter and more athletic recruits at a time when taller and stronger players dominated college lacrosse. She preached the importance of self-confidence and quickly found success with her new team, leading them to a 19-1 record as a club team while winning the Women's Collegiate Lacrosse League tournament title, a precursor to the collection of trophies the team would win throughout the rest of the decade.
"Honestly, when I first took the job, I was a little bit apprehensive," Amonte Hiller says. "In those beginning years, I just kind of enjoyed the moment and really thought about that specific time. I didn't think 'we need to do this in this many years.'"
Staying within the present helped, as did Amonte Hiller’s experience during the preceding decade working with an assortment of the top minds in the game. Upon taking the Northwestern job, she faced many of her former mentors.
"I think if you ask anybody, what she's done with that program – obviously building national championship-caliber teams year in and year out – we all kind of stand in awe of her accomplishments and what she's done," says Amanda O'Leary, head coach of the Florida women's lacrosse team.
One subtlety of the women's lacrosse world is that just about all of the top coaches are connected in one way or another. As an assistant coach at Maryland in the early 90s, O'Leary recruited Amonte Hiller to play for the Terps, where the latter played alongside current Maryland head coach Cathy Reese, the only coach to ever beat Amonte Hiller in the NCAA Championship title game. At Maryland, Gary Gait – a four-time All-American and six-time Major League Lacrosse MVP before coaching at Syracuse – also served as an assistant coach. Amonte Hiller won two NCAA Player of the Year awards under head coach Cindy Timchal, the first coach of the Northwestern lacrosse program from 1982-1990 before going to Maryland.
"You always pick up things watching game film and competing against [opposing coaches]," Gait says. "The cool thing about our group is that we're all friends and we came from the same beginnings. We all still learn something about being creative, thinking outside the box and never just settling for the game being the game.
"I think Kelly's done a great job with that. She changed the game in a lot of ways, and there are certainly some things I've learned from her."
Amonte Hiller redefined “thinking outside the box” after becoming head coach. Taking over a team that last played at the varsity level in 1992, that was essentially a prerequisite of the position.
Two early players who helped the program get off the ground in those early years were the Koester twins, Courtney and Ashley, who had never played lacrosse before Amonte Hiller handed them sticks for the first time in the fall of 2001. Four years later, they led the team to a national championship and graduated as All-Americans.
But it didn’t happen all at once. As expected, Amonte Hiller's squads struggled at the start. In the first year of official competition in 2002, the 'Cats went 5-10, then improved to 8-8 the following season before breaking out with a 15-3 record that saw the team climb up to sixth in the IWLCA coaches poll. That year, the 'Cats advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to second-seeded Virginia.
It was the last time Northwestern would lose an NCAA Tournament game for the next 23 contests.
During the next eight years, one could argue that Amonte Hiller was the most successful figure in sports. She achieved the ultimate goal seven times, falling short of perfection by a two-goal margin in the 2010 championship game.
It seems like magic. Of the 19 players on that first team, 15 were freshmen and two of the four sophomores were twins whose first time playing in an official lacrosse game was their debut contest at the college level.
Just like they drew it up.
“Intense hatred of losing”
How did Amonte Hiller make it work? Of course, she was (and still is) widely recognized as one of the best players in the history of the sport – that helped, especially with a team in need of more fundamental training than usual. But part of team's growth came out of a focus on the players having their heads in the right place – not just believing they could win, but wanting to win.
ESPNW once ran a series with motivational quotes from various women's college sports coaches. Some put forth sayings like "respect tradition," "don't babysit your team" and "make practice count." But Amonte Hiller's stood out:
"Hate losing. Championship ways become habitual through focused daily effort and an intense hatred of losing."
It’s a message Amonte Hiller still reinforces to her players, with emphasis on the “daily” aspect.
"The biggest thing is that hard work is really key," she says, "but also you have to focus in on the culture of the team and really get the kids to understand they have to have that winning mentality every day, not just on game day. They have to win for each other."
Part of Amonte Hiller's competitiveness stems from her upbringing. One of her brothers, Tony, played professional hockey – including nine seasons with the Blackhawks – and she played competitively in boys leagues across a variety of sports at a young age.
"Kelly grew up with super-athlete older brothers that really helped her develop that drive for sports and competitiveness," Gait says. "Just that nature from her family carries over to her, and she's the ultimate competitor."
Imagine living by that philosophy – "hate losing" – for your entire coaching career, then losing as many games in a single season as you did in all seven of your championship-winning seasons combined. That’s what happened to Amonte Hiller last year, with five of the team’s seven defeats coming by a single goal and three occurring in overtime.
This offseason, Amonte Hiller and her coaching staff recruited an unusually large class – 14 freshmen – that Inside Lacrosse named the country’s No. 1 incoming class. The well-rounded group includes the third- and fourth-ranked recruits, Selena Lasota and Shelby Fredericks.
“We had some success early [recruiting] this group and then we were able to add some kids later on in the process,” Amonte Hiller says. “They just kind of built up to be a great class. It's a great groups of girls, and I'm excited about them.”
But will an exceptional recruiting class be enough to compete with the likes of Maryland, North Carolina, Syracuse and Florida, the four teams ranked above Northwestern in the preseason IWLCA rankings?
“We're going to put it out there,” Amonte Hiller says. “This group has a really good mentality, we've got some real winning attitudes on this team, and I think it's contagious. The group's got good confidence in themselves right now, and that's kind of how I am as well.”
"I know how to assess situations"
Lacrosse is a complicated game defined by a simple result: The team with the most goals at the end of a 60-minute period wins. That’s why even with a win-loss record last season that indicates a down year, the players and coaches don’t look at it from that perspective.
"I think for us, we just want to build on what last year's team did,” Amonte Hiller says. “We gained some momentum towards the end of the season, and I think this young group of kids coming in has really learned from the returners. We've really built on the cohesiveness of the group as the year's gone on."
Still, that won’t let Northwestern off the hook if it fails to bring home an eighth national title, a result that is seen as both realistic and expected – not just by the fans and media, but by the team itself.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself, but, you know, that's just kind of who I am. I know how to assess situations," Amonte Hiller says. "I don't put pressure on myself or the team to always win, but to give our best effort, and hopefully that puts us in a position to win.
"As long as we feel good about the effort we put out there...that's really the key, to focus in on the process."
Watching the girls go through their rigorous workouts, I can't help but wonder how many other teams rose at the crack of dawn on a Friday morning to practice martial arts drills, on top of the usual work on draw controls and other techniques.
It goes back to that pressure Amonte Hiller applies, which is part of her nature, a deep-rooted quality that plays out every time she sets foot on a field.
"She always wants to finish first," Gait says. "She wants to be the best and puts in the work to make sure that happens."