Coaches helping lacrosse branch out
EVANSTON, Ill. -- She sits at the center of it all, which at this moment is on the well-worn sectional in her Northwestern lacrosse dressing room, where the spoils of seven NCAA titles are seen not in banners or trophy cases, but on a projection screen and in the controlled chaos of her players' gear.
But Kelly Amonte Hiller is also perched squarely in the middle of her booming sport -- both geographically, with the Midwest serving as the epicenter of college lacrosse this weekend when the sixth-ranked Wildcats host USC at Wrigley Field, and as a major root of a coaching tree as responsible as anything right now for the growth of the game.
Bringing her USC team to Chicago will be Trojans coach Lindsey Munday, a two-time NCAA champion at Northwestern as a player and part of three more titles as an assistant coach, all under Amonte Hiller. And one of Munday's assistants is Hilary Bowen, who won NCAA titles as a player in each of her four years at Northwestern under both Amonte Hiller and Munday.
"The biggest thing that Kelly and Lindsey did was not just coach you as a player but in life," Bowen said. "And the idea that I could inspire that kind of growth in somebody and have that kind of impact turned me on to coaching."
Amonte Hiller said she has urged her players and assistant coaches to continue in the game.
"It's hard to have the turnover," she said, "but I feel it's part of my role in the big picture of the sport, and just as a mentor I want to encourage people to be strong and help this sport grow."
In all, there are 18 of Hiller Amonte's former assistants or players now coaching Division I women's lacrosse. Those numbers are not only impressive for her but for a sport that has grown from 71 Division I teams during the 2000-01 academic year, to 103 this season, according to data from laxpower.com.
Beginning next season, the Big Ten will have a conference tournament with six schools -- Northwestern, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers -- participating. But only two SEC schools -- Florida (which began in 2007 and reached the Final Four in 2012) and Vanderbilt -- currently field intercollegiate teams, with eight in the ACC, five in the Pac-12 and none from the Big 12 or Conference USA.
"I want to see more Big Ten schools added, schools from the SEC, from the West Coast and I want to see that the sport grow at all different levels with the coaching piece, officiating and youth coaching," Amonte Hiller said of her wish list. "I think those are the grassroots portions you need to become strong.
"It's growing so fast that sometimes you don't have enough people to officiate youth games or coach youth or high school programs. I can't tell you how many high school athletic directors call all the time and say, 'Hey, do you have any former players [to coach]?' All the time. So I think that has to be the charge of our sport, to spread the resources so we can sustain the growth and be a really strong, marketable sport."
The strongest resources would appear to be the former collegiate stars now starting programs, a coaching tree that all agree began with Cindy Timchal, who began coaching at Northwestern in 1982, won eight NCAA championships at Maryland and has 17 former players now coaching collegiate lacrosse, 14 on the Division I level (including Amonte Hiller).
"If you ask Kelly or other players I had, like Kerstin Kimel at Duke, or Sonia LaMonica at Towson, it just seemed to be the next natural phase for them," said Timchal, who went to Navy in 2006 to begin the program there. "Lacrosse is so much a part of life for them growing up and playing at the college level, they just wanted to share their experiences and wealth of knowledge of the game by having the opportunity to coach.
"For players like Kelly, who was on the World Cup team, and Lindsey, who is still playing on the highest level [as a member of the U.S. national and World Cup teams], it's very exciting for these women to be role models in that way and offer up an elite college experience for young women."
I think across the country we're in a really good place right now and it seems like we haven't plateaued yet. As a coaching body we have to continue to do everything we can to get more exposure and get people talking about lacrosse.USC coach Lindsey Munday
In 2011, Munday, at age 26, became the first women's lacrosse coach at USC, a program that took its biggest step last Sunday with a victory over 13th-ranked Stanford at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
"I think across the country we're in a really good place right now and it seems like we haven't plateaued yet," Munday said of the sport in general. "As a coaching body we have to continue to do everything we can to get more exposure and get people talking about lacrosse."
For USC athletic director Pat Haden, who said he had "seen one lacrosse game in my life before starting our program," the decision was an easy one.
While some promote the addition of women's lacrosse teams as a good way to even out the men's and women's participation numbers per Title IX, Hayden said USC president Max Nikias had other motives.
"What he was looking for were premier student athletes in new geographies," he said. "A lot of the best lacrosse players are from the East Coast, so now lacrosse is part of the process of getting more good students to come to USC. And what we've found out is that once a school sends one kid here, others follow."
Whatever it takes, Amonte Hiller said.
"It doesn't matter to me at all," she said. "It's probably why I'm here. That's the cool thing about Title IX is that when [a women's sport] is added, it's for a reason, but look at what has happened when they added lacrosse, brought in a coach and gave us some support.
"Now we're playing at Wrigley Field and who could have ever imagined that?"
The Chicago Sports Commission bid late last year for the men's and women's NCAA lacrosse championships and while they did not get them, Amonte Hiller said events such as those and Saturday's game with USC are the first steps to loosening the East Coast's grip on the sport.
"This type of event shows that hey, we can move it to a place like this and it can be very special and you will get the same type of following you will get on the East Coast," Amonte Hiller said.
"It's probably hard for people to let go of the traditional East Coast hold on it, but we've been able to establish ourselves and this event is a way to show we can definitely be a player."