Meet the woman leading the lacrosse resurgence.
Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller surveys the field as first-year Izzy Scane spins through multiple Notre Dame defenders, pumping her fist when the ball hits the back of the net. With an enthusiasm matching her players, Amonte Hiller paces the sideline and cheers. Hanging above the triumphant homefield scene, banners showcase the coach’s legacy: Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse: Seven-Time National Champions in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Amonte Hiller began her career at Northwestern in 2001, coaching the women’s lacrosse club program for one year before it gained Varsity status in time for the 2002 season. The team won the 2005 NCAA championship title, making history as the first male or female team outside of the Eastern Time Zone to win any NCAA lacrosse title. This was a remarkably fast rise to the top for a college lacrosse program, most of which take at least a decade to build.
Sarah Walsh Kotkowski, who was a fourth-year on the championship team in 2005, says that, Amonte Hiller always assured her players that, regardless of the outcome, each game was an opportunity to move closer toward the end goal.
“It started with the building blocks of her establishing a vision, making everyone buy into it, and then supporting us as individuals and as a team,” Walsh says. “From the moment we were recruited, she told us what her goal was: winning a national championship in four years.”
The Wildcats continued to dominate, winning the championship every year through 2009, then again in 2011 and 2012.
This season will mark seven years since the team’s last NCAA National Championship win. In light of recent success, however, the Wildcats could be turning things around. This postseason, they made history in beating previously undefeated University of Maryland to secure their first ever Big Ten Championship Title. Weeks later, they played in the national semi-final for the first time since 2014, but were ultimately eliminated by Maryland.
“I’ve had to change my tactics a little bit just based on where my team is at,” Amonte Hiller says. “It is very different to build a team than [it is] to sustain success, so right now we are in the building phase again. . . when we were in our run of championships, we were in the sustain phase.”
Amonte Hiller realizes the value of coaching at a university with a strong reputation, especially when rebuilding a team. She recognizes this has helped attract strong players to the program.
“[Northwestern] is such a special place. The location, the ability to be a top-tier academic school. . . it’s easy to draw kids into that,” Amonte Hiller says. “For us, we just try to draw the right people that are going to want to work hard and buy into our positive philosophy.”
Yet the success that Amonte Hiller has brought to the Northwestern program is arguably why she continues to draw such talented players. Scane credits Northwestern’s history of success with bringing her here.
“I started playing lacrosse in sixth grade, and that was right when they were off their seventh national championship. So it was kind of like my ‘wow’ school,” Scane says. “It really stuck with me, and that is kind of why I chose to go here.”
In addition to coaching the U.S. Women’s U19 team, Amonte Hiller has been inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Thirteen of her former players and assistant coaches went on to become Division I coaches, and she has coached three recipients of the Tewaaraton Award, an honor given to the top player of the year.
“She’s a great developer of leaders. You look at who her legacy is, in terms of where they’ve gone on as coaches,” Walsh Kotkowski says. “All of us as players are strong leaders. . . whether it’s in lacrosse, or it’s in the business world, or having a good sense of self.”
Years later, this core philosophy of shaping strong athletes like Walsh remains central. Whether a team is winning national championships every year, or merely winning half of the games in a season, Amonte Hiller says the key to coaching is focusing on the players.
“My coaching philosophy is just to really try to embrace individual players for who they are and then help them mesh together and become a really confident individual and confident group,” Amonte Hiller says. “It’s all about building up student-athletes, embracing them and getting them to believe they can achieve anything.”
During its run of championships, Amonte Hiller led her team in mental exercises, with visualizations and meditations before games and practices to help players focus. The team focused on giving each other affirmation, whether that be related to lacrosse or not.
“[It] reinforced that self-confidence, that you do have a role on this team. You are important. You are an individual, all of those things that I think Kelly was really good at making us believe,” Walsh says. “She’s really focused on what you’re good at, and pulls that out and really develops your strengths as opposed to focusing on your weaknesses.”
Second-year Brennan Dwyer describes how Amonte Hiller has helped reassure her as a young draw specialist.
“I’ve definitely become more confident,” Dwyer says. “We’re here for a reason and [she tells us] not to be scared… coming into such a huge, well-known program. . . She cares about everyone so much. And not only on the field does she want you to be your best, but she also wants to make sure that you’re doing your best off the field.”
Fourth-year Claire Quinn played defender and midfielder before transitioning to play attack in her third year. Playing under Amonte Hiller taught her to trust herself and the role she plays on the team, even throughout such a drastic switch. Part of this trust, she says, starts with developing trust and relationships with younger players.
“When our freshmen come in, she always gives [them] a chance to step in and have a role in a game really early. She works on developing them, whether that’s just inviting them to come to her office and talk or extra practice, like outside of our normal team practice time,” Quinn says.
During practices and games, Amonte Hiller cheers loudly when younger players snag a ground ball or hustle to make a check. Her competitiveness and hunger to win, embodied by her sweatshirt that reads “Victory,” gives players a reason to go as hard as they can right off the bat.
“I think she has given me a reason to be confident in myself, play for my teammates and just go as hard as I can every single day,” Scane says.
Amonte Hiller smiles and walks to meet her team as the horn sounds, signifying the end of the game against Notre Dame and another ‘W’ in the record books. As her players file off the field, Amonte Hiller heads to talk to the reporters waiting to question her. Her responses are eloquent and candid, and she effortlessly demands respect. She exudes confidence in what she has to say, and her players glance over as she talks about her coaching goals.
“I want them walking off campus when they graduate here feeling like they can achieve anything.”