Joe’s Corner

In this week’s edition of Joe’s Corner, Joe Misulonas looks at the nearly unprecedented career of Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller as she nears her 200th career win.

The Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse team is heading on a two-game road trip this weekend. Tonight, they play the North Carolina Tar Heels and Sunday afternoon they will play the Vanderbilt Commodores. If Northwestern wins both of those games, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller will have notched her 200th career win.

This is a pretty big deal. Why? Not only would Amonte Hiller become only the 9th coach to reach the milestone, she’ll have also done it in the fewest seasons. Amonte Hiller is in her 12th season. It took each of the other eight coaches 17 years to get to 200.

Remember, only 12 years ago, Northwestern didn’t even have a women’s lacrosse team playing at the varsity level. They only had a club team. Then Amonte Hiller took over the program and made it the juggernaut it is today. Her career record is 198-30. Since 2005, the first year Northwestern won the National Championship, her record is 170-9. That’s a winning percentage of .945.

That’s not just good. That’s not even great. That is perfection.

We all know how good this team is. They’ve won 7 of the last 8 national championships. But I don’t think we appreciate how good that is. There are few teams that have been that great over an extended period of time. Think of all the dynasties in sports history. The 2000s Patriots? Three championships in five appearances. The 1990s New York Yankees won four championships in six years. The Jordan Bulls won six championships in eight years (perhaps if Michael Jordan hadn’t decided to make his detour into baseball, he might have reached the same level of greatness as coach Amonte Hiller).

The only dynasty that eclipses the Amonte Hiller Wildcats are the John Wooden Bruins. From 1963-1975, in a span of 12 seasons, UCLA won 10 championships, including seven in a row. Those were historic teams, with future Hall-of-Famers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton anchoring those squads.

Northwestern women’s lacrosse has also had it’s share of great players. Kristen Kjellman won the Tewaaraton Trophy, given to the league’s best player, in 2006 and 2007. The next two years, the award was won by another Wildcat, Hannah Nielsen. Then in 2011, Northwestern reclaimed the trophy after a one year absence when Shannon Smith won it.

Not only has Amonte Hiller trained great players, she’s also mentored great coaches. Lindsey Munday, a former NU star and assistant coach, is currently the head coach of the USC women’s lacrosse team (a program in it’s first year of existence). University of Massachusetts’ coach Angela McMahon is a former Northwestern player. And remember Shannon Smith? Yeah, she was hired as the Hofstra women’s lacrosse coach last summer, making her the youngest women’s head coach in any Division I sport.

Despite all her success at Northwestern, Amonte Hiller strives for more. She has been offered numerous job offers in recent years (including the USC job given to Munday), and has turned them all down. She remains committed to the program she helped build 12 years ago. She watches great players graduate, and replaces them with equally great recruits.

Recently ESPN magazine put out it’s “Perfection” issue. It was an tragic look into how great players and coaches strive to be better, and ultimately fail. How Tiger Woods has destroyed his golf game by seeking out the perfect swing. How Bill Walsh tried to create the perfect football team, only to be beaten down by the pressure, and resign as head coach only to see his successor win the Super Bowl the next season.

The point was greatness itself is a rare quality, and perfection even more so.

Is what Kelly Amonte Hiller is doing with the women’s lacrosse team perfection? It certainly is great. It’s certainly legendary. But is it perfection? There is no way to decide whether it is or it isn’t. But there’s no denying that there’s something special going on at Lakeside Field.

And if coach Amonte Hiller has any say, it’s going to stay that way for a very long time.

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