It’s 7:30 a.m. on a freezing January morning. The ground outside is covered with the first major snow of another Chicago winter. The team shuffles into their makeshift locker room and prepares for practice. The atmosphere is light and laughter breaks out when they learn that a carload of teammates will be late because they got stuck in the snow.
Northwestern University’s women’s lacrosse team is one of the most dominant college sports teams in history. The team has been to seven straight national championships, won six of them and completed two undefeated seasons. It’s led by Kelly Amonte Hiller, four-time Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association Coach of the Year, and Weinberg senior Shannon Smith, the reigning winner of the Tewaaraton Award and Honda Sports Award, given to the country’s top lacrosse player.
After nine years as a club, the varsity program was restarted in 2002 with Amonte Hiller at its helm. She is quick to point out that Northwestern took a chance by hiring her because she was only six years out of college and had never been a head coach. The risk paid off, and Amonte Hiller has been hailed nationally as one of the best college coaches.
“I don’t think you could find a better coach than Kelly,” Smith says. “I think she’s always ahead of the curve in the women’s lacrosse world, and all the other coaches are trying to catch up to her. And when they do, Kelly’s doing something new and something innovative, and she’s always staying on top of the game.”
One of the team’s current All-Americans is Communication junior Taylor Thornton, an athlete who wasn’t highly recruited out of high school because she’s from Texas, which has not traditionally been a lacrosse state.
Since Northwestern is in Illinois, another nontraditional lacrosse state, Amonte Hiller doesn’t try to make Northwestern like other lacrosse schools. “I think that I’m not afraid to take a risk on a player that maybe isn’t as polished,” she says. “We feel like we can develop them when they get here.”
The confidence and trust she places in her team are central to her coaching philosophy.
“In order to be good, you have to play together, you have to trust each other and really believe in each other, and know that one, two people can’t make things happen all by themselves,” Amonte Hiller says. “So I think that we really try to emphasize that with our girls.”
With this philosophy, the team won the national championship in only its fourth year back in Division I with a perfect 20-0 season.
The performance was so amazing that in 2005, President George Bush invited the team to the White House. The team was famously criticized because several players wore sandals, which weren’t considered formal enough for the White House.
The women quickly turned the situation around and auctioned the flip-flops to raise money for their biggest fan, then-10-year-old Jaclyn Murphy. Murphy was comforted by a picture in her hospital room of an NCAA lacrosse player while she underwent treatment for a malignant brain tumor.
Alexis Venechanos, then an assistant coach, heard of Murphy’s illness first and the coaching staff put together an NU lacrosse package. Since then, Murphy has recovered and remains close with the team, staying in contact with them and texting them before every game.
It also turns out that the picture hanging on the wall in her hospital room was Amonte Hiller as a player. No one realized until later.
Murphy’s family was then inspired to start the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation that pairs sports teams with ill children like Murphy to help with their recovery.
“[Murphy] has just brought this positive environment to the team,” says Brianne LoManto, Weinberg senior and the team’s starting goalie. “No matter what happens in life, whenever you’re posed with a very difficult situation, you can always overcome something.”