Full disclosure: I am a former Wildcat. But that’s not usually something to boast about amongst sports fans—unless you happen upon a group of Keyshawn Johnson fans. Or, in a slightly less dated scenario, you find yourself surrounded by "lax heads." That’s the endearing term used to describe the sizable group of loyal fans who turn up at Northwestern University women’s lacrosse games. Of course, it’s a lot easier to remain faithful to a team when they’re winning—and this team wins a lot.
Last Sunday, the Wildcats out-laxed Syracuse in the NCAA championships. Playing in the title game has become something of a routine for the Wildcats—this was their eighth consecutive appearance and seventh win in the final. Lucky number seven sealed the team’s dynasty and head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s rightful reign as its adored queen.
When Amonte Hiller first inherited the team, it was far from a kingdom; in fact, when she arrived in 2001, women’s lacrosse was a club program. She was tasked with reviving the team’s varsity status and luring talent to the Midwest. That was no small feat considering that for more than five decades, the East Coast dominated college lacrosse. According to Sports Illustrated, when the Wildcats first won the title in 2005, it was the first time a program—male or female—from outside the Eastern time zone won a national championship.
Amonte Hiller is, herself, a product of the East Coast machine. She was a four-time All-American and a two-time Player of the Year at the University of Maryland. She was in her hometown, working as an assistant in at Boston University, when Northwestern approached her for help. She was skeptical about leaving the seaboard but her older brother, Tony, just happened to be the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks at the time—so at least she had a place to crash. Soon she embraced the role of the underdog and got to work. She famously promised her first freshman class that she would lead them to a championship—and sure enough, that class won the school’s first title their senior year.
The success of the team during Coach Amonte Hiller’s tenure has been credited with increasing the visibility of Northwestern’s entire athletic program and fan base; a fan base that includes Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Eddie Vedder, all of whom called to wish the team luck before last Sunday’s game (please take a moment to image those three watching a game together—grooming each other’s odd facial hair while kicking around ideas for a Vitology-flavored Gatorade).
Coach Amonte Hiller is quickly becoming a celebrity in her own right: In October, she will be inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame for her performance as a player at Maryland, the Big Ten Network recently named her a Big Ten Coaching Icon and after last Sunday’s big win, she’s just one title shy of tying her former Maryland coach, Cindy Timchal, for the most NCAA championships.
She’s not just pushing her peers, she’s propelling the sport. In a recent column for the Chicago Tribune, David Haugh wrote that he does not “consider it a coincidence that the number of Illinois high schools offering girls lacrosse has increased from 21 to 41 since Northwestern won its first title.”
And it was no coincidence that Afternoon Shift was interested in learning more about the highly-decorated queen of lacrosse. Fresh off her team’s most recent title win, Coach Amonte Hiller joined Steve Edwards for an extended chat.