By Jack Lido
There’s a living legend in the city of Evanston. She’s held an NCAA Championship trophy nine times and a gold medal thrice. She went to the top of the mountain in her sport, then led a generation of athletes to the same peak. Kelly Amonte Hiller has had a life of winning in women’s lacrosse. In the 1990s, she spent four years as one of the best lacrosse players in the country on a legendary team. In the 2000s, she took a program that didn’t exist as a varsity sport for a decade, and turned it into a titan. She’s a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. She is one of the greatest people, player or coach, to touch college sports. Her legendary career began as a sports-loving kid on the South Shore of Boston.
I. “I was just a natural at it”
There was a “Buy two, get the third free” special for youth hockey in Braintree, Massachusetts, and the Amonte family already had two boys playing, so they enrolled their daughter, Kelly. The youngest of four played ice hockey, baseball, basketball, softball, and soccer as a kid.
Her parents were not only her personal chauffeur to practice, but also teachers in the house and on the field, court or ice. Things might have been different had her father, Lewis, not retired from construction work early, after he had a heart attack in his 30s. Without work, he had more time to spend with his children.
“I feel like I had a pretty solid mentoring from my parents, and that’s kind of where us kids developed out work ethic, our personalities,” Kelly Amonte Hiller said, “and confidence was a big thing especially for me I feel like my dad helped me gain a large amount of confidence just believing in me.”
While Amonte had two puckhead older brothers, Rocco and Tony, she didn’t follow their path, citing a lack of accommodations for girls in youth hockey. By the time she got to high school, she stuck to soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter.
Lacrosse didn’t come into the picture until the spring. Amonte’s high school, Thayer Academy, didn’t have softball, so when the women’s lacrosse coach asked her to play, she was open to the idea.
“I just decided yeah I’m gonna try it,” she said, “I was just a natural at it cause I had great hand eye coordination and speed and so it was great. Lisa really introduced me to that sport.”
Lisa was Amonte’s coach, Lisa Miller. The name doesn’t peak the interest of most casual sports fans, but she’s a stallworth in the women’s lacrosse game. She was an All-American at William and Mary in 1987, when the sport had a six team NCAA Tournament field. Thayer Academy was Miller’s first coaching job, and she later coached over twenty years at Syracuse and Harvard.
After less than four years playing the sport, Amonte was being recruited at the Division I level. She visited the University of New Hampshire, Penn State University and Boston College. The first plane ride of her life was on a trip to the University of Virginia, but she decided to go across the Potomac to the University of Maryland, where she played both lacrosse and soccer
“All throughout high school I got recruited mostly for lacrosse, but I loved soccer too,” Amonte said, “Mostly I was getting recruited for lacrosse, the lacrosse coaches would contact the soccer coach and say ‘you need to recruit this girl too.’”
In her freshman year, Amonte was a top performer in both. She led each team in points, and was on All-American in lacrosse. In her sophomore year, she was an All-American in two sports, joining the likes of Otto Graham (football and basketball) and Jim Brown (football and lacrosse) as two-sport college All-Americans. In total, Amonte put a ball into a net 207 times over her four years at school.
As an upperclassman, her soccer honors waned, but her lacrosse honors multiplied. Under the tutelage of legendary lacrosse head coach Cindy Timchal and assistant coach Gary Gait, Amonte said she combined her natural athletic ability and hard working attitude with the skills she learned from her coaches.
As a junior, she earned NCAA Defensive Player of the Year honors, and led her team to an undefeated, championship-winning season. A year later, she did it all again: an undefeated season, and – this time – Offensive Player of the Year honors. She was also named the ACC Female Athlete of the Year. Eight years after picking up the sport, she was on top of the lacrosse world.
By the end of her college career, Amonte was Maryland’s all-time record holder for career goals, assists and points. She became the first player in women’s lacrosse history to be at least a second team All-American all four years (she made the 1st team as a sophomore, junior and senior).
Amonte never won the Tewaaraton Award, known as the Heisman of lacrosse, because it wasn’t given until 2001. However, she was properly compensated in 2020, when she received the Tewaaraton Legends Award, given annually to a player who would have won the honor had the award existed when they played.
After graduation, Amonte took the field again, this time in Edogawa, Japan, for the 1997 Women’s Lacrosse World Cup. The U.S took home the gold, and Amonte would return to the international stage twice more in 2001 and 2005, winning gold and silver respectively.
“It’s definitely very special to be able to put on the U.S Uniform and to be able to represent your country,” she said, “I want the U.S to be successful, so I’m excited about the opportunity to lead them.”
Amonte had a long road from ending her college career to choosing a team to compete on an international stage. In 1997, her next chapter began.
II. “Nobody has done it better”
After college, Amonte stayed in the sport by way of Brine and Brown. By day, she helped to develop and sell women’s lacrosse equipment from Brine, a Boston-based sporting goods company, later acquired by Warrior Sports. By night, she was a part-time assistant coach at Brown University. She said that her background as a communications major helped her with her coaching.
“I loved it. I felt like I really connected with the girls. I was a good teacher,” she said. “I felt I could maybe do it [coach full-time] but I wasn’t set on it right off the bat.”
She got the chance just three years later. After spending time as a graduate student and assistant at the University of Massachusetts and Boston University, Northwestern Athletic Director Rick Taylor asked Kelly, now Amonte Hiller after marrying husband Scott, to take over a lacrosse team that spent nearly a decade as a club squad.
Amonte Hiller’s brother Tony played hockey at Boston University when Taylor was the Athletic Director there. Taylor left for the A.D. job at Northwestern, and knew the Amonte family well. He invited Amonte Hiller to interview for the Northwestern head coaching position, but she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave.
“I wasn’t too keen on leaving the Boston area ‘cause I had just gotten back there, but I just saw this university and the people at the university, and I knew that we could be successful here based on the academics and what Northwestern had to offer,” she said.
Amonte Hiller said her husband and future assistant coach encouraged her to take the job. She also had family, her two brothers, in Chicago.
“[Scott] really encouraged me to take it, he said these opportunities don’t come around often,” she said. “I ended up taking the job in the summer of 1999, and I guess the rest is history.”
The spring of 2001 was Northwestern’s last season as a club team. In the fall of that year, Kelly Amonte Hiller saw two young women playing flag football out of her office window; she had already assembled a recruiting class of 17, but wanted two more. She asked them if they wanted to try out of lacrosse. Ashley and Courtney Koester, twins from Richmond Indiana, were small, athletic, and skeptical; they had never played lacrosse before. Amonte Hiller gave them lacrosse sticks to take home over Thanksgiving break, and they joined the team when they returned to campus.
“I had never played a game of lacrosse or even seen one,” Courtney Koester said in an interview with McCormick Magazine. “In fact the first game I ever saw was one I was in, as starting center.
Northwestern had notched three wins in its final two years as a varsity sport, and hadn’t made an NCAA tournament since 1988, when Cindy Timchal had her first coaching job in Evanston. After two mediocre seasons, Amonte Hiller picked up where her old mentor left off, making the NCAA tournament in 2004, and sharing a conference title (Northwestern played in the American Lacrosse Conference at the time, the Big Ten Women’s Lacrosse conference was created in 2015).
“I just believed in myself and the University and what we could achieve. I got my players to believe in that too. I was able to develop them not just in their mindset but in their skills” Amonte Hiller said of her early success.
One year later, Amonte Hiller’s squad took a leap that would start one of the greatest runs in the history of collegiate athletics. The Wildcats went 21-0 and won the NCAA championship by a score of 13-10 against reigning champion Virginia. They boasted six Inside Lacrosse All-Americans, including Ashley and Courtney Koester.
With the win, Northwestern became the first men’s or women’s lacrosse team from outside of the Eastern time zone to capture an NCAA championship. Amonte Hiller didn’t stop there, two months after coaching a national champion, she suited up in red, white and blue for the 2005 Women’s Lacrosse World Cup, bringing home a silver medal.
Northwestern took another championship in 2006, with junior midfielder Kristen Kjellman winning the Tewaaraton Player of the Year Award. They did it again in 2007, and Kjellman became the first player, man or woman, to win the Tewaaraton Award twice.
Kjellman’s feat didn’t last long, because in 2008 and 2009, Wildcat midfielder Hannah Nielsen became the second person to win the Tewaaraton Award twice. The ‘Cats won two more NCAA championships, as if that were an afterthought. Northwestern lost three games in the stretch between 2005-2009. Five championships in a row is more than the longest championship reign of 14 NCAA Division I sports.
Northwestern’s streak came to an end in 2010, when they came one win short of a sixth title in a row. The ‘Cats held the trophy twice more in 2011 and 2012, making it seven championships in eight years for Northwestern, and nine in total for Amonte Hiller. Had the 2010 campaign gone differently, a streak of 8 championships in a row would be the longest championship streak in men’s or women’s lacrosse history. (Maryland holds the women’s record with seven, Princeton holds the men’s record with three). Amonte Hiller still hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament Round of 32 since 2004, but hasn’t won the title since 2012.
In the sixteen year stretch (albeit a cherry-picked sample size) from 1996-2012, only fifteen players were 1st team IWLCA All-Americans three times. Amonte Hiller either coached or was four of them.
“It’s about her dedication to her sport,” Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips said in an interview, “not only of winning, but creating leaders of the future, and nobody has done it better than Kelly Amonte Hiller”
Amonte Hiller was absolutely right when she said “the rest is history.” Her time at Northwestern is already etched into lacrosse lore, and at 46, with a team coming off a Final Four appearance, she has many more pages to fill.
III. “Every day, I just wake up and I want to become more like Kelly”
Saying that Amonte Hiller is a legend in lacrosse only because she won a few championships is like saying John Lennon is a legend in music because he wrote some great songs. Amonte Hiller changed the game as much as any player or coach in college sports.
As Phillips alluded to, Northwestern lacrosse gave dozens of Northwestern players not only championships, but also a coaching bug. Ann Elliott, a Northwestern standout at midfield, won three national championships as a player at NU, and three more as an assistant. Today she is in her seventh season as the head coach at Colorado University of Colorado.
“Every day, I just wake up and I want to become more like Kelly.” Elliott said in an interview.
The Kelly Amonte Hiller coaching tree extends across the country, from USC, where former All-American player and championship-winning assistant Lindsey Munday is the reigning Pac 12 coach of the year, to Hofstra University, where Shannon Smith, 2011’s Tewaaraton Award winner, has been coaching the Pride for eight seasons.
Six of the past seven national championship games have included Amonte Hiller disciples, including former All-American Katrina Dowd, now an assistant at powerhouse North Carolina, and former NU assistant coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein, now the head coach of a Boston College team that boasts three NCAA Championship appearances in the past three years.
Amonte Hiller said she looked for great teachers when hiring her assistants, and oftentimes they naturally were her own former players. She also took it as a profound compliment that her players wanted to go into coaching.
“It’s a great thing to know that you’ve injected a passion about the game so that someone would want to make that their career, cause that’s how I feel about the game,” she said.
In addition to the generation of coaches she inspired, Amonte Hiller has had a lasting impact on the sport. After Northwestern became the first lacrosse program outside of the eastern time zone to win an NCAA championship, clubs started to pop up all over the midwest and west coast United States. Lindsey Munday and Ann Elliot were the the inaugural coaches of their respective programs. In total, after 2005, six women’s and two men’s lacrosse programs outside of the eastern time zone were created, before 2005, only nine (including Northwestern) existed across both.
“I think that it was an east coast sport, I don’t think it is anymore.” Amonte Hiller said, “the biggest thing that we’ve done to spread the game is be successful and recruit from different areas. We’re the first team to recruit outside of the east coast consistently and be successful with it.”
Her influence has gone across borders too. One of Northwestern’s all-time greats, Selena Lasota, grew up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, over 2,000 miles Northwest of Evanston. Lasota played indoor lacrosse, known as box lacrosse, due to the frigid weather in Canada. Box lacrosse is on a converted hockey rink, a smaller space, with tighter, more aggressive defense. Lasota had no exposure to field lacrosse, but brought an aggressive and entertaining edge to the Big Ten that was inspired from box lacrosse.
Amonte Hiller also had an impact on the equipment in women’s lacrosse. In 2008 Northwestern bucked tradition and ditched from skirts to shorts, a trend several teams have since picked up on. She’s also continued to work with Brine to develop her own lacrosse equipment, including the Amonte 2 Women’s Lacrosse Head. I don’t know about you, but having sports equipment named after me would be pretty cool.
“It gets you thinking in all different realms as a coach, you’re not just thinking about the X’s and O’s you think about everything that goes into being good whether it’s equipment, what you’re wearing, (or) the technology that goes into being the best,” Amonte Hiller said.
There is perhaps no one better in the world to comment on the sport of women’s lacrosse itself than Amonte Hiller. She was happy to pitch the sport to the average sports fan, noting the recent entertainment value of the game.
“The state of our game at the collegiate level is very strong. It’s a very attractive sport for young kids to play,” Amonte Hiller said, “obviously I’m pretty biased, but I think it’s one of the more exciting games. It’s not super long, I think people can go they can see a game they can watch a game on TV pretty quickly. It’s very fast, high-scoring, and very athletic so I think that it really has all the components.”
Lacrosse is among the fastest growing sports in America, and Kelly Amonte Hiller has seen its rise first hand. It’s a safe bet to say she’s going to oversee the next generation of lacrosse stars, especially considering she’s currently coaching them at the U19 level. And down the road, there might be two little Hillers running around the lacrosse field, Kelly and Scott’s daughters Harlee and Lew.Overlooking Lake Michigan on the Northeast side of Northwestern University Kelly Amonte Hiller’s office. The walls are covered in honors, magazine covers, and pictures of championship teams. The decent sized nook has as much silver and gold and anyone inside the mammoth Walter Athletics Center combined. With a program near the top of a sport on the rise, she definitely doesn’t have to look out her window for more players.