May 21, 2007
Northwestern women's lacrosse is about as dominant as a team can be. Aiming for their third consecutive national championship, the Wildcats have lost all of two games in the last two-plus seasons, and this year's group of seniors is the winningest class in school history.
The lacrosse squad was the first team from Northwestern in any sport to win back-to-back NCAA titles, and their championship in 2005 was the first for the school since 1941.
But all this success didn't happen overnight.
Well, actually, it kind of did.
The Northwestern women's lacrosse program existed as a varsity sport from 1982-92, but then operated as a club team for the next 10 years. Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller was hired in 2000, charged with the task of bringing the program to national prominence when it returned as a varsity sport in 2002.
But before she could realize her goal of bringing a national championship to Northwestern, Amonte Hiller had to go out and recruit athletes to play for a program that didn't even exist.
"With the first class I had to get to come out here, I was trying to get those independent kids that wanted to leave home," Amonte Hiller said. "And it worked in our favor because usually those types of kids are more willing to take risks on the field as well."
But even among those risk-takers, Amonte Hiller still needed to convince recruits that they could be successful when no team outside of the Eastern time zone had ever won a national championship.
"I tried to sell what I brought to the table," Amonte Hiller said. "In most other Big Ten sports, you can sell the Big Ten and you can sell Northwestern as a university, but from my perspective, those were not selling points because a lot of people I was recruiting didn't know about the school unless they had some type of tie to the Big Ten. So I sold my experiences as a player and what I could build and what I could bring in order to get them out to campus. And once they came out and saw it and met the people here, then it was an easy sell."
And as if Amonte Hiller's challenges were not great enough in building a program from the ground up, an unexpected tragedy altered her recruiting, making it more difficult for her to bring over athletes from the East Coast.
"Recruiting was really challenging around September 11th," Hiller said. "My first class was coming in when that happened, and a lot of people in that next class didn't want to go away from home."
Now a senior under Amonte Hiller's guidance, Aly Josephs remembers what her coach said to make her want to leave Baltimore and head to Evanston.
"Her message was really confident," Josephs said of her coach. "She sat me down when I came on my visit, and she said, `We're going to win a national championship in the next four years.' And she said that if I wanted to be part of a winning program, I should come here."
Josephs and her teammates saw the fruition of Amonte Hiller's dream almost immediately.
In Josephs' freshman year of 2004, Northwestern was picked to finish fifth in the American Lacrosse Conference (ALC), but instead split the crown with Vanderbilt. Coming off a season in which they went 8-8, the Wildcats erupted for 15 wins and earned a berth into the NCAA Championship. Northwestern bowed out of the tournament in the quarterfinals, but that loss stands to this day as the only one the Wildcats have suffered in the national bracket.
The Wildcats received numerous accolades after shocking the nation in 2004. Then-freshman Kristen Kjellman was named the American Lacrosse Conference (ALC) Rookie of the Year and was joined by five of her teammates on the All-Conference team. Amonte Hiller took home Coach of the Year honors for her efforts in pulling her team to the top of the standings.
Following an incredible run in 2004, the Wildcats made history the next season as they became the first lacrosse team - male or female - outside the Eastern time zone to take home a national championship. Northwestern was the only Division I team to finish undefeated that season.
After making national champions out of her very first recruiting class, Amonte Hiller was named IWLCA National Coach of the year, Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year and ALC Coach of the Year. Then a sophomore, Kjellman was named the conference's Player of the Year while Ashley Gersuk took home Goalie of the Year accolades.
But to Amonte Hiller, the awards are just a way of getting more appreciation for her program.
"The awards don't really mean anything," Amonte Hiller said. "It means a lot that this program is getting recognition. It's a credit to what a great staff we have because it's not just strong performances - it's what we have behind the scenes, as well, that makes us successful."
Having already made good on her promise to win a national championship within four years, Amonte Hiller entered the 2006 season on a mission to repeat. And staying at the top would be just as hard as it was getting there.
"We face different challenges now," Amonte Hiller said. "It's a challenge trying to keep kids grounded, making sure they don't become entitled because we're used to winning championships now. Often, when that happens, kids think they're entitled to win instead of getting after it and working to win."
The Wildcats most certainly got after it.
In 2006, Northwestern compiled a 20-1 record en route to becoming the first program in school history to win back-to-back NCAA Championships. Kjellman became the first player from a non-East Coast school to win the Tewaaraton Trophy, which is awarded to the country's top player, while the five All-American Wildcats marked the highest total for any school that year. Kjellman was once again named the ALC's Player of the Year while freshman sensation Meredith Frank was tabbed as the conference's Rookie of the Year. Amonte Hiller took home her third straight conference Coach of the Year award.
Though the quick success of the program was no surprise to the Wildcat mentor who had envisioned a national title for her first recruits, not all the players believed it would happen quite so soon.
"I came from Baltimore, which is a hotbed of lacrosse, and everyone is all hopped up on teams like Duke and UNC," Josephs said. "It's hard to believe you're going to be going into a two-year-old program and we'd be winning a national championship. I knew we'd be successful, but I just wasn't sure to what extent."
But Northwestern's achievements were no fluke. Amonte Hiller built her program around the philosophy that everyone on the team had the potential to be successful, and everyone could contribute at any given moment.
That statement was never more true than it was during the 2006 NCAA title game, when National Player of the Year Kristen Kjellman went down with an injury and players like Josephs had to step up.
Josephs answered the call and scored four of Northwestern's seven goals in the game to be named NCAA Championship Game MVP.
"I think what makes our team so good is that every single person can contribute and step up if need be," Josephs said. "It's hard for other teams to defend us because we have seven people who are capable of stepping up and scoring. I'm confident that everyone on my team can make a game-changing play. I think that Kelly instilled in us that everyone is equally important."
Amonte Hiller also instilled in her team an attitude that makes her players perform like they have something to prove - no matter how highly favored they are.
"We've always played with the mentality that we have to prove something, play with a chip on our shoulder and prove that we're even better than everyone says we are," Josephs said. "Since our freshman year, we built on what we did the previous game. Correct the mistakes, take it one game at a time, and it helped us be successful."
This year has been no exception for Northwestern, whose team is littered with the country's top talent. Seven Wildcats were named to this season's All-Conference teams, and Kjellman and Hannah Nielsen are two of the five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award.
Having earned the No. 1 overall seed in the 2007 NCAA Championship, the Wildcats have still managed to stay true to their coach's game-by-game approach.
Led by hat tricks from Josephs, Kjellman and Frank, the Wildcats knocked off Holy Cross, 19-7, to open the tournament. In the quarterfinals, Northwestern gutted out a 14-9 win over Syracuse as Frank and Hilary Bowen notched four goals each, while Josephs contributed four goals and an assist.
The Wildcats are now heading to their third consecutive NCAA Championship finals, looking to change the record books once again.
Maryland is currently the only team with three consecutive NCAA titles to its name as the Terrapins claimed the trophy each year from 1995-2001. But Northwestern is poised to add its name to that short list as it continues to defend its title on Friday against fourth-seeded Penn.
The road to the national championship will not be an easy one as all four of the bracket's top seeds have advanced to finals competition.
But Northwestern has already done more than even its own players ever imagined, so it would come as no surprise if this overnight success stayed up at the top for a long time.