What If? The Kelly Amonte-Hiller Factor

WNUR Sports Online Content Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) asks what the state of women’s college lacrosse and Northwestern athletics would be if Kelly Amonte Hiller wasn’t the head coach at Northwestern.

The NCAA Women’s lacrosse tournament starts this weekend with the Northwestern Wildcats holding the #2 overall seed. The Wildcats have won the last two national championships, and are just a few weeks away from a three-peat. The team has been to the title game eight years in a row, with their only loss coming in 2010. That’s seven national championships in eight years, folks.

The key to the long-term success of Northwestern lacrosse is head coach Kelly Amonte-Hiller. She took over a program in 2001 that would make the transition to varsity play in 2002. Four years later, her team won the national championship.

The closest comparison to this kind of success in college sports is arguably the Florida Gulf Coast men’s basketball team, which began play (at the Division II level) in 2002, making one appearance in the (Division II) NCAA tournament in year 3 of the program. In 2013, the team’s second year of Division I postseason eligibility, second-year head coach Andy Enfield led the Eagles to the Sweet Sixteen. Coach Enfield received much of the credit for the team’s success, and was rewarded this offseason with the head coaching position at USC.

With all due respect to the accomplishments of that program, the success of NU lacrosse blows “Dunk City” out of the water. Amonte-Hiller’s first team at Northwestern featured 15 freshmen and two players who had never played lacrosse before. The first two varsity teams Amonte-Hiller fielded went 5-10 and 8-8, respectively. Through a combination of strong recruiting and good coaching, the team grew stronger every year, making the NCAA quarterfinals in 2004 before running away with an undefeated national championship season in 2005.

Photo by Stephen J. Carrera.

Photo by Stephen J. Carrera.

The rest is history. Behind Tewaarton Trophy winners Kristen Kjellman (twice), Hannah Nielsen (twice) and Shannon Smith, the Wildcats have claimed seven of the last eight national championships. The team is 185-11 during that stretch.

But how good would Northwestern lacrosse be without Kelly Amonte-Hiller? What if, in 2001, she didn’t take the huge risk of taking over a program that hadn’t competed at the varsity level in a decade?

Let’s start with the logistics of this change. Amonte-Hiller had strong ties to East Coast lacrosse, where she won two player of the year awards at Maryland, her alma mater. After graduating from Maryland in 1996, she was an assistant coach at Brown, UMass, and Boston University. If Amonte-Hiller had risen to become the head coach at any of those schools, we might be talking about those teams as the ones with long stretches on NCAA championships. Amonte-Hiller might have even had even more of a recruiting advantage at those schools because they are closer to the traditional lacrosse hotbeds of New York and Massachusetts.

The truly scary thought is, “what if Amonte-Hiller returned to Maryland to be their head coach?” In 2002, when Northwestern played its first season under Amonte-Hiller, the Maryland Terrapins were the seven-time defending national champions. Amonte-Hiller would have had to wait to take over as the head coach, as her former mentor, Cindy Timchal, was the coach at Maryland until 2006. Maryland didn’t win a title between 2002 and 2010, only making the Final Four twice during that span. However, with a duo of superstar coaches in Timshal and Amonte-Hiller, the Terrapins would have likely won at least two or three additional titles, if not all seven that Amonte-Hiller won in Evanston.

Regardless of where Amonte-Hiller landed in 2001, it’s safe to say that that program would now be a title contender every year and would probably have a healthy collection of championship hardware in their trophy case.

The next question is how good Northwestern lacrosse would be with a different coach at the helm. It’s impossible to say who the coach would be today, so let’s instead look at some programs at schools comparable to Northwestern.

In picking “schools similar to Northwestern,” I mean schools that are away from the Northeast, where lacrosse is most popular, and academically competitive. Let’s specifically look at Duke and Vanderbilt, both teams that Northwestern has beaten in 2013. Vanderbilt struggled this year, posting a 2-15 mark, but the program has had some success in the past decade, including four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2007 to 2010.

The better comparison for Northwestern’s lacrosse program sans Amonte-Hiller is the Duke Blue Devils. That program started in 1996 and has been coached by a Maryland graduate for its entirety. Duke finished this season 12-5 and earned a 16th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. The team has been to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament six times, but has zero titles to show for it. The current Blue Devils roster contains mostly players from New York and New Jersey, with none coming from North Carolina. (Northwestern’s roster has just one player from Illinois.) In short, a different coach at Northwestern probably means no national titles in women’s college lacrosse.

What does that mean for Northwestern University as a whole? It’s tough to say for sure, since lacrosse does not generate the same revenue for the athletic department that football or basketball do. Since it’s tough to calculate something as vague as “school spirit,” allow me to make two final claims about the Northwestern athletic department without a national championship-winning lacrosse program.

1. Without the excitement surrounding lacrosse, spring football would be much more important to the average Northwestern fan, and the Wildcats football team would have a traditional spring game to meet the demand. We wouldn’t see this “open practice” nonsense. There would be a regular spring game, just like every other BCS school.
2. Since the goal of “give the awesome lacrosse team better locker room facilities” wouldn’t seem as pressing, the new athletic facility next to SPAC would still be in its planning phases and would break

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