May 20, 2009
By Danny Daly
Very few coaches reach the top of their profession by the time they are 35 years old. Then again, very few coaches are like Northwestern's Kelly Amonte Hiller.
Consider the challenges Amonte Hiller faced when she took the Wildcats' opening prior to the 2001 season. She was starting from scratch, as NU had been a club team for almost a decade. Lacrosse was almost exclusively an East Coast sport - no school outside of the Eastern Time Zone, men's or women's, had ever won a national championship.
Most of all, NU was not exactly a household name in the lacrosse community.
"Initially, not a lot of people knew the reputation of Northwestern University," Amonte Hiller said. "We had to educate them about the benefits of being a student-athlete at Northwestern. She was expected to handle all of that at age 27, running her own program for the first time. But none of that fazed Amonte Hiller.
Now her Wildcats are in prime position to win their fifth straight NCAA title, under a coach who never doubted her staff's ability to build a national powerhouse.
"I wouldn't say I imagined it as it is right now, but I knew we would be successful and definitely compete for a championship," Amonte Hiller said.
Perhaps no one understands the difficulty of what Amonte Hiller has done better than Cindy Timchal, her former college coach.
Timchal won seven consecutive championships at Maryland at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s - the benchmark for this NU program. She also coached the Cats for nine years before taking over the Terrapins, advancing to the NCAA tournament five times but never making the finals.
NU's string of four championships in a row has impressed the last coach to put together such a dominant run.
"There are many schools on the East Coast that haven't been able to achieve that," Timchal said. "That just plays into how remarkable it is that Northwestern has really set themselves apart from the rest of the competitors."
The state of women's lacrosse was much different when Timchal was in Evanston.
Fewer colleges across the country had varsity programs. Even those that did, like NU, were grossly underfunded and had a hard time putting together successful teams for extended periods of time.
"When I coached in the '80s at Northwestern, there were no scholarships in women's lacrosse," Timchal said. "We were able at that time to compete at a high level and get to many NCAA tournaments, but never really get to the top."
Timchal had to get creative to attract quality athletes. She managed to somewhat solve the problem because of her standing as an assistant coach for the field hockey team, which did give out scholarships. Some of the players Timchal recruited for field hockey, such as current Wake Forest field hockey coach Jennifer Averill, were trained in lacrosse and starred for that team during their offseason.
Having spent nearly a decade at NU, Timchal had some advice for her former player when she was contemplating the chance to revive the Cats. It had little to do with the job offer.
"She just said, 'You have to go to Carmen's pizza place in downtown Evanston,'" Amonte Hiller said.
But Amonte Hiller also knew that NU was a special opportunity because of the success Timchal had, especially with scholarships at her disposal. Timchal also had been in a position where she needed to build a foundation, since her first season coaching was also the Cats' first at the varsity level. She still found a way to build a winning program.
Timchal knows something about the pitfalls that dynasties face, too. In 2001, her last title-winning Terrapins team went undefeated. Their reign ended with a thud the following season, finishing with an 11-10 record.
Part of the reason why it became difficult to stay at such a high level was the emergence of start-up programs like NU. With the American Lacrosse Conference adding two more teams next year (Florida and South Carolina), Amonte Hiller might soon be in a similar position of having to beat out new challengers for recruits.
"That's always the challenge, because if there are more and more new schools, more and more scholarships are out there," Timchal said. "In tight times, maybe Kelly can offer so much money to a great athlete. But a new program can give them more money because they need them more desperately."
One thing Amonte Hiller has never had an issue with is appealing to recruits on a personal level. Every player who is a part of her program is completely invested in the team's cause.
"She's one of the most passionate people I've been around," former player and current assistant coach Lindsey Munday said. "That energy and enthusiasm just rubs off, and as a player she'd say, 'Jump,' and we'd say, 'How high?' We would just do anything that we said because we were behind her philosophy."
Since she has been so successful at such a young age, it might seem like Amonte Hiller would get bored after a while. She has nothing left to prove or accomplish that she has not already done.
But Amonte Hiller does not envision that day ever coming.
"It never gets old," she said.
## GO NAVY! ##