Amonte Hiller's guide to building a national champion
In 2000, Kelly Amonte Hiller was given the job of resurrecting the Northwestern women's lacrosse program. Six years later, the Wildcats are back-to-back national champions.
Young coaches are a gamble. They don't have a proven track record or experience to fall back on. A young coach and a brand-new program? It could spell disaster.
Amonte Hiller was given the job of resurrecting the Northwestern women's lacrosse program in 2000. The program's original run, from 1982 to 1992, had been successful, before it was dissolved in '93 and remained dormant for nine years. Amonte Hiller had the unenviable task of putting together a competitive lacrosse team in the Midwest, while most of the nation's powerhouses -- and top recruits -- resided on the East Coast.
With just four years of collegiate coaching experience, and none as a head coach, Amonte Hiller seemed an unlikely candidate for such an undertaking. However, her experience at Maryland, where she won two national championships and two Division I Lacrosse Player of the Year awards (both in 1995 and 1996), plus four All-America nods, gave her a leg up on the competition. She has also competed internationally for more than a decade, including stints on the national team and Women's Elite team, and won IFWLA World Cup titles with the Elite Team in 1997 and 2001. In 2005, she was named to the All-World Team at the World Cup, where the U.S. finished second to Australia.
"I wasn't all that experienced when I came in," Amonte Hiller admitted. "Northwestern took a chance on me. My biggest reservation was leaving Boston, where I am from [she was an assistant coach at Boston University], but it was the best decision. [Taking the Northwestern job] was a risk and a tough decision, but I felt good about it. There are a lot of great people in the athletic department and at the school, and I wanted to be a part of it. Their support of the program was tremendous."
Coming from the most successful program in women's lacrosse history, Amonte Hiller certainly understood what it took to build and maintain a national power. After being named Northwestern's head coach, she spent most of her time trying to convince top recruits to commit to a program that didn't yet exist at a school few had even heard of.
"In the beginning, recruiting was one of the biggest challenges. I really had to sell myself," she explained. "I sold my philosophy of being a positive coach, someone who is hardworking. I told them we were going to build something new and exciting, and my staff and I worked hard to get kids to buy into that."
Amonte Hiller did have one advantage: Northwestern's academic reputation.
"Once I get the girls on campus, the school sells itself," said the Hingham, Mass., native. "Northwestern is a tremendous academic institution and has a beautiful campus. We just had to get over the hurdle of getting kids out here to see it."
As Amonte Hiller points out, there is a big difference in recruiting males and females, who don't have a professional outlet.
"[Girls] don't have that dream growing up that they might go pro, which I think is a good thing," she said. "They understand what college is all about. They want to get into the best school, get the best education and compete at the highest level. Northwestern's an easy sell because of that. Most lacrosse players are focused in their studies. The teams that consistently compete -- like Duke, North Carolina and Princeton -- are the top academic schools as well. Our sport has always attracted some bright kids, and I hope that continues."
The Northwestern staff focused on recruiting hardworking and coachable athletes, instead of looking primarily for great lacrosse players.
"We wanted great athletes -- we can teach lacrosse," Amonte Hiller said. "We want players who are risk takers and who want to learn and get better. So many times you see kids who come in and have established what they know, and don't want to improve as much or work as hard."
Amonte Hiller's first recruiting class -- the program was officially reintroduced in 2002 -- finished their collegiate careers as national champions. The 2005 title was the first for any lacrosse program not in the Eastern Time Zone. Although the Wildcats breezed through that season undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, few thought a school from the Midwest could become a national power. The 2006 squad answered critics' questions immediately. Finishing with just one loss and a national championship, Northwestern sent a clear message that it's here to stay.
Although her first recruiting class was extremely successful, recruiting wasn't always easy. At one point, Amonte Hiller resorted to a highly unusual tactic for a Division I coach: She saw two girls out running and decided to talk them into playing lacrosse. Twin sisters Ashley and Courtney Koester had never seen a stick or goal before that day, yet they ended their careers at Northwestern in 2005 as national champions and All-Americans.
"That ended up being a unique situation, and one that really worked out well," Amonte Hiller said.
Although the coach may not be scouting the streets for recruits anymore, she and her staff have made it a priority to recruit locally and build the area's lacrosse community.
"I want to see the area grow. That's important to me, and it's something that, in the long run, will benefit us as a community," she said. "The support for our program has been great -- a lot of people are coming out to games -- and we want to give back. We support them with teaching and running clinics. Each year we've drawn one recruit from the area, which is a great tradition, and as the talent pool gets better and better, it's something we'd like to continue."
"I want the girls to have a positive experience and have as much fun as they can, but I expect them to work extremely hard and believe in our program," she said. "That's what it's all about -- getting the girls to believe in themselves, in us, in what they can achieve. I think they sensed that I wasn't wavering in my belief in them, and when you know someone believes in you, you can achieve a lot more."
She modeled her philosophy on a combination of a few people, including her previous coaches; her brother, Calgary Flames winger and Olympian Tony Amonte; and her husband, Scott Hiller, the co-president of Major League Lacrosse's Baltimore Bayhawks and former head coach of the Boston Cannons.
"I came from a storied lacrosse program and had a great experience. I adored learning from some of the best coaches in the sport," she said. "I also used other people in my life, including my husband and brother. I tried to pull all my resources and come up with my own philosophy that meshed everything. When I first took the job, I had a clear vision and didn't waver from it."
In her time as an assistant coach, Amonte Hiller said she learned the value of good communication between coaches and players.
"A lot of coaches have trouble with communication, but if your players have the skill and don't know what you want them to do, it's a problem," she said. "I try to communicate as much as I can. Each year, it gets tougher and there are more demands on you. But I think it's very important that your players are comfortable with you and know they can go to you with anything."
The program's turning point came during the 2003 season. Although the team was made up of primarily freshmen and sophomores, the team went 8-8 and beat its first ranked opponent, No. 19 UConn.
"[That year] the kids took the program to the next level. The kids we brought in meshed really well with the kids that had experience -- it turned out to be a tremendous combination," she said.
The team's 2005 and 2006 national championship seasons were nothing short of amazing. In two seasons, Northwestern suffered just one loss, which the Wildcats avenged in the 2005 semifinal game against Duke. Amonte Hiller picked up her third straight ALC Coach of the Year honor in 2006, and was the 2005 IWLCA National Coach of the Year and the Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year.
"My proudest moment is seeing my players grow as people on and off the field," she said. "I am proud to have been able to help the team achieve winning a national championship for our first recruiting class. It was surreal for those girls to buy in to something and achieve their ultimate goal. It's something that doesn't happen too often."
One of the biggest challenges facing all coaches, but in particular a young, successful coach, is handling all of the demands placed on your time.
"There's a lot that goes on beyond the coaching piece," said Amonte Hiller, who recently completed her fifth year at the helm. "I've learned to delegate, and I have really quality assistants who have taken the lead. My staff is really inspired by what we can achieve. In other jobs, the results might not be so quantifiable and you might not be as motivated to do all of the small things. But our girls inspire us to give them the best experience possible."
After winning two titles at a school that has a scant amount, Amonte Hiller has noticed that her calendar fills more quickly than it did when she was just starting out.
"It has gotten a lot busier, but I try to keep it as close as it was when we first started," she said. "Between making appearances, fund-raising and other day-to-day things, I have to prioritize. The girls are No. 1. If I'm with the girls and I'm unable to get back to people or don't achieve as much thoroughness, I've learned it's not going to make or break anything."
Besides juggling time commitments and other responsibilities, Amonte Hiller is constantly trying to find new ways to help her team win.
"It's absolutely important to embrace new technology," said the coach, who employs a video editing system she believes has taken the program to new heights.
"You can't be consistently successful unless you're always looking to get better, and that applies to coaching as well. We started using video editing two years ago, and it has made a big difference. We try to be creative and inspire our girls to improve as well."
Amonte Hiller hopes the team's success will have far-reaching results.
"I hope athletic directors across the country will see what we've done and what can be accomplished when you have the right coach and the support for the program," she said. "You can be a competitor quickly, and that's exciting. I hope it spurs a lot of growth in our sport."
The program's quick success likely played a role in Florida's decision to begin playing varsity lacrosse in 2009. Navy also appears to be on the verge of adding the sport in 2008.
With 80 active Division I women's lacrosse teams and more on the way, schools will be looking for young, talented coaches to lead their programs. Amonte Hiller advises those coaches to be confident and create a philosophy they believe in.
"Don't waver. You'll be challenged, you'll have ups and downs, and you might not get all the things you need right away," she warned. "Focus on making it a great experience for your athletes and you can't help but be successful."
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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