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NU women’s lacrosse and its title collection border on unbelievable

ErFitzgerald AlyssConstantino Bridget Daley

Erin Fitzgerald Alyssa Constantino Bridget Daley

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Updated: June 23, 2013 6:46AM



It’s hard for the average sports brain to process a team this good.

I’m speaking of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team, a female paving machine that has crushed foes into dust for nearly a decade.

The Globetrotters don’t clown the Generals the way the Wildcats do their foes.

After making it to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals in 2004, the Wildcats have won seven national championships in the last eight years and finished second in 2010.

With their 15-7 victory against Penn State last Saturday in Evanston, the lacrosse women have now made it at least as far as the semifinals for an astounding nine consecutive years.

Since 2005, they have averaged 1.2 losses per year. In that time, they have won 187 games.

They’ll soon be off to suburban Philadelphia, where they’ll play No.  3-ranked North Carolina on Friday in the NCAA semis.

That won’t be an easy game. North Carolina is one of the two teams to beat NU this season — an 11-8 loss in Chapel Hill back in February.

But here’s the thing about Northwestern’s lacrosse team: Its DNA compels it to get better as the season rolls and the rewards grow.

Consider its other loss this year was on April 20 to Florida, an ego-deflating 22-4 wipeout. Then consider that the teams met in a rematch two weeks later for the American Lacrosse Conference championship — a much bigger deal — and the Wildcats clawed the Gators to shreds, 8-3.

If Northwestern does beat North Carolina, it will play in the finals Sunday against the winner of the other semifinal between Maryland and Syracuse.

Let’s just say the Cats go all the way again. That would be eight national championships in nine years.

More than this noggin can process.

It’s all nuts.

Especially at academics-first Northwestern, a school, for instance, whose men’s basketball team never even has played in an NCAA tournament game.

Plus, lacrosse is an East Coast game. Everybody knows this. Indeed, no team from the Central, Mountain or Pacific time zones has won a women’s lacrosse title — except NU.

Crazy.

So what gives?

Mostly what gives is head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. She is in her 12th year at Northwestern, and had she taken the coaching job at some other school — say, her alma mater, Maryland, which has won 10 NCAA crowns — we likely wouldn’t be thinking about Midwestern women’s lacrosse at all. And Northwestern would be a nice place to graduate from.

‘‘Her lacrosse success rivals UCLA during the John Wooden era,’’ says Jim Phillips, NU’s vice president for athletics and recreation. ‘‘In the end, it is a reflection of the very best lacrosse coach in the country.’’

Hiller herself points to her ‘‘Northwestern Lacrosse Creed’’ as the foundation for NU’s continued reign. Among the main points, she explains, are ‘‘leading by example and knowing we’re role models,’’ and the crazy last one, ‘‘unconditional love for each other.’’

Wow, that’s a lot of love. Kinda corny, maybe.

But it works.

‘‘She’s a mentor and big sister to our team,’’ Phillips says. ‘‘We’ll always be a ‘player’ in a competitive sense, but I am more pleased as to what she represents as a woman, mother and wife. In fact, her husband, Scott, is an assistant, and the two of them work together so well.’’

Sounds like the Cleaver family with goggles and lax sticks.

The sister of former Blackhawks captain Tony Amonte, Hiller was herself a lacrosse star in college, being named All-America four times, winning two NCAA championships and setting Maryland school career records for goals, assists and points.

She worked as an assistant at Brown, UMass and Boston University before coming to NU. Besides skill and drive — when hired at 25, she told then-AD Mark Murphy her goal was to win a national title and ‘‘I think he kind of chuckled’’ — Hiller brought a connection to the East Coast.

The stars on the team came from there and places such as New Zealand. Kristen Kjellman, Hannah Nielsen, Shannon Smith, Katrina Dowd, Taylor Thornton — all great players, made better by Hiller.

The quirkiest tale about this sport that is perfect for Northwestern, since it’s generally played by girls who are smart and from high-quality high schools and there’s no pro future in it, happened in 2001, Hiller’s second year at NU. She saw a pair of identical twins annihilating other girls in a flag football game on campus, found out they were freshmen, talked them into joining the lacrosse team (though they never had held lacrosse sticks) —and four years later, Ashley and Courtney Koester graduated as All-Americans.

It’s not always that easy.

But it keeps rolling.

And it’s amazing.



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