Commentary

Wildcats bring lacrosse to Jerry's World

Originally Published: March 18, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

You do have to check, just on the million-to-one chance that you'd make the wrong assumption. So you ask Northwestern lacrosse player Taylor Thornton, born and raised in Dallas, if she's a Cowboys fan.

[+] EnlargeKelly Amonte Hiller
Stephen J. Carrera Kelly Amonte Hiller is focused on growing the sport and is taking her team on the road to do it.

"Oh, of course, 100 percent," she said, laughing.

This weekend, Thornton gets to do something that anybody who grew up idolizing the likes of Emmitt Smith would dearly love to do. She will play at Cowboys Stadium. Northwestern, five-time NCAA champion, is meeting William & Mary there Saturday night.

Lacrosse in the still-like-new Taj Mahal of Texas football? How did this come about, you wonder?

Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller likes to stage games in places where lacrosse is growing but needs a little more exposure to boost its popularity. Plus, she wanted Thornton to get a chance to play close to home.

Working with WomensLax.com, which is hosting this event, Amonte Hiller figured Dallas was the place this season. And she knew William & Mary coach Christine Halfpenny wanted to play in Texas, too, because the Tribe have two athletes from the state: Sarah Jonson, a former prep teammate of Thornton in Dallas, and Hannah Clarke of Houston.

Then Amonte Hiller contacted one of her former college teammates from Maryland, Patty Wick, who'd previously coached Thornton and Jonson. Turns out Wick had a connection to Cowboys Stadium: Another girl she coached was the granddaughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

So it all came together: Northwestern versus William & Mary at Cowboys Stadium.

"It's going to be a surreal experience to be on that field," Thornton said. "Here's this team I grew up watching and loving, and I get to be in their facility and spread the exposure of this game I love. I'm so excited about it."

There will also be high school games played there Saturday, as well as clinics, to make for a very full day of lacrosse. The Northwestern-William & Mary match will be streamed live at both Northwestern's website and at WomensLax.com.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Thornton
Stephen J. CarreraTaylor Thornton is one of a growing number of lacrosse players from Texas.

"More and more people are playing lacrosse all across the country," Amonte Hiller said. "On the men's side, lacrosse is booming, too. And Taylor has had a huge effect on Texas women's lacrosse."

Lacrosse is probably not something you think of in terms of having a strong connection with Texas, but the sport continues to develop roots there. Thornton said she started playing lacrosse in seventh grade at the urging of her mother, who thought the game looked fun.

"I really enjoyed it from the start, because I could use my speed really well," said Thornton, who also competed when she was younger in basketball, where she was a point guard. "I just kept up with it through high school and found my niche with lacrosse.

"I remember watching Northwestern win the national championship in 2006, and my dad saying, 'Taylor, that program fits you, the speed and pace of play. You can do that.' I was like, 'Yeah, right, Dad.'"

Thornton thought she probably wasn't going to be good enough, especially since she didn't grow up in one of the more traditional lacrosse states on the East Coast. But after some national competition at the club level, she realized her dad was right: She really could do it at Division I.

Last year, her freshman season at Northwestern, Thornton started every game as the Wildcats ended up as national runners-up to Maryland. A midfielder/defender, Thornton had five goals and three assists in her rookie year and was one of the anchors of the Northwestern defense. So far this season for the No. 2-ranked Wildcats (6-0), Thornton has six goals and an assist, plus 38 ground balls and 33 draw controls.

Junior Shannon Smith of West Babylon, N.Y., is Northwestern's top scorer with 22 goals and 18 assists for Amonte Hill, who took over the Wildcats' program in 2001. Then it was transitioning to varsity from club status, and she turned it quickly into a championship team. Northwestern won the NCAA title every year from 2005 to 2009.

Amonte Hiller is from Massachusetts, and started playing lacrosse her freshman year in high school. She had competed in many different sports growing up including hockey, which is the sport her brother, Tony Amonte, excelled in as he went on to an NHL career. He retired in 2007 and is now coaching.

Amonte Hill was Division I lacrosse player of the year in 1995 and '96, leading Maryland to the NCAA title both seasons and being named ACC female athlete of the year as a senior.

She's witnessed expansion of lacrosse all over the country, and has two more recruits from Texas coming in next season.

"Coaching in the Midwest now and seeing how much our exposure has given a lift to the high school and youth players around this area, one of my goals is to help the sport grow in other areas, too," Amonte Hill said. "The last two years we've played games in San Diego for that reason. And it's kind of cool that both San Diego State and Southern Cal have added lacrosse.

"This year, playing in Texas is something I wanted to do both for Taylor and because I know that's such a booming growth area right now for lacrosse."

Which is something Thornton can attest to. She's eager for lacrosse players in her home state to have this kind of event in Dallas.

"Each summer, I see more kids starting younger," she said. "You drive around, and in neighborhoods where before you would never see a lacrosse goal, there's one now. You'll see kids on the weekend throwing lacrosse balls around in front of their house."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.