No gimmicks, just titles

By Scott Powers

Northwestern senior Hilary Bowen won't touch the question.

Yes, she understands why she's being asked about the Wildcats possibly winning a fifth consecutive women's lacrosse title. And yes, she admits it is a big deal.

But, no, she doesn't want to talk about it. And, no, there isn't a "Drive for Five" or anything else that rhymes with purple, Northwestern or Wildcats.

"No, we don't have a name for it," said Bowen, who hopes to return to action against Princeton in Saturday's NCAA quarterfinal after missing the last eight games with a torn ACL. "We haven't put anything on it. We barley talk about it. … It's not taboo on our team to talk about it. But it's not what our program has been about. It's been about Kelly really driving home [that] we can't win a national championship unless we win this game on this Saturday."

Kelly being Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, the architect of the Wildcats' program and arguably the most successful NCAA coach -- in any sport.

This isn't a shot at Pat Summit, Joe Paterno, Mike Krzyzewski or any of today's other famed coaches who have put together dynasties in their respective sports. But how many of them took over a program when it was at the club level, elevated it to Division I, convinced recruits to come to a region to play a sport that was monopolized by a whole other region of the country and from there has gone on to produce multiple national players of the year and ultimately won four, going on five, national titles?

The answer is none.

Amonte Hiller took over the program in 2001 and spent the first year coaching a club team to a 19-1 record. The Wildcats made the leap to Division I the following season and went 5-10 with 15 freshmen and four sophomores. In 2003, they improved to 8-8 and beat nationally-ranked Connecticut. In 2004, they made a larger step, going 15-3 and advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals, losing to Virginia.

In 2005, the championship run began. Northwestern became the first school outside the Eastern Time zone to be ranked No. 1 on its way to a 21-0 mark and a national championship win over that same Virginia. In 2006, the Wildcats won their second title over Dartmouth, and Kristen Kjellman won the Tewaaraton Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's top player. There were six All-Americans on that team. In 2007 came another championship over Virginia and Kjellman became the first player to win the Tewaaraton Trophy twice. In 2008, Hannah Nielsen won the Tewaaraton, and Northwestern beat Penn for the fourth championship.

"It's not luck what's happened to this program," said Northwester senior All-American Meredith Frank.

So what then?

"Lot of hard work!" said Amonte Hiller, who was a star herself at Maryland. "Getting out and recruiting student-athletes that believe in our philosophy. The most important factor was a belief in ourselves that we could achieve anything if we put the work in.

"It has been amazing being part of this program so far. We have so many great memories about the struggles and successes that we had."

Bowen and Frank are two of the 25 East Coast players on this year's roster who were sold by Amonte Hiller's early vision that a Midwest team could win in an East Coast world. Only four players on the roster are from Illinois. Unlike many of the current players, though, Bowen and Frank committed before Northwestern even won its first national title.

"To be honest, I didn't know where Northwestern was," Bowen said. "You are taking a chance when you come out. She was so confident where she was taking the program. I believed her. I'm very happy with the decision."

Frank said: "She has an attitude, a very positive outlook. It's about building that team to believe in what it takes to be that successful. She's a motivator. She's a great coach, great leader. She's everything you want in a great coach."

Four national championships, a total of three losses in the last five seasons, 26 consecutive wins and a 53-game home winning streak has brought the program a lot of love along the North Shore, but everywhere else it has had the opposite effect. With their ongoing dynasty, the mention of the Wildcats' name provokes anger and jealousy across the women's lacrosse community. They've become in women's lacrosse the Connecticut of women's basketball, Duke of men's basketball and USC of football.

"I think it's kind of us against the lacrosse world," Bowen said. "Naturally, if your team is successful, people are going to hate you and want to take you down. That's the nature of the game.

"I think it's just exciting that the lacrosse world has had a team outside of the East that has been successful. That means the game is growing. In my four years, our fan base has grown. During the playoffs, we have thousands of people. That's not something you expect in the Midwest. You see that at Maryland and Syracuse."

Amonte Hiller has no plans to take her lacrosse success out of the Midwest anytime soon. The East has to deal with it for now.

"Each year has different challenges and each team is different," she said. "Personally, I will always be motivated to be successful. That is in my blood. The team and staff have great pride in the program and we stay motivated to get better. Tying to improve everyday is a key factor for us."

For 11 Northwestern seniors, there is the likely scenario that they win another national championship next weekend and close out their college careers with nothing but national championships. To Frank, it's unreal.

"You can't predict the future," Frank said. "You don't ever know what's going to happen. I would have written the story the way it's turned out for me in a million years."