If I asked you which Chicago team has been the winningest in recent history, the possibilities of whom it would not be are pretty obvious. That team on Addison comes to mind. However, the answer might surprise you. Up in Evanston, on the campus of Northwestern University, the women’s lacrosse program has quietly been building one of the most prolific dynasties in Chicago sports history.
Behind the success is Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, a former collegiate All-American for the University of Maryland in both lacrosse and soccer. Don’t be impressed yet, there is more. Amonte Hiller has lead the Wildcats to seven NCAA Div. 1 national championship finals in the past seven years, winning an astonishing six out of seven. (Northwestern lost the 2010 title game to Amonte Hiller’s alma mater Maryland 13-11.) Amonte Hiller took over the program in 2001, when they were just a club sports team, and since then has churned out an impressive record of 176-28 en route to becoming the most decorated lacrosse team of the past decade – men’s or women’s.
I caught a recent game against one of their biggest rivals, the University of North Carolina. Yes, those Tar Heels. I use the term rival loosely, as NU is now 10-2 all-time against UNC. However, the Tar Heels have caused some heartburn for the Wildcats in recent years, taking them down to the wire in a close 11-10 NU victory in the NCAA tournament semi-final match last year, and stealing a victory from the Cats in the 2010 regular season play, breaking a 58-game home winning streak.
But when you don’t lose all that often, you certainly remember those teams did hand you a loss and I knew for that reason this game would hold all of the intensity I had hoped. There were tough hits, scrappy play and quick goals. Yet, through the first half of play, the Wildcats found themselves in an uncomfortable position – behind.
North Carolina, ranked third in the country, came out with a sharp focus, scoring five goals in the first fifteen minutes and adding one more several minutes later to head into the half with a 6-4 lead over the Cats. They deserved the advantage with their better play and their bench certainly celebrated like it was a big accomplishment. They would not be cheering so loudly later on, but to be fair it was only the second time this season the Cats were sent in the locker room not leading at the break. The Heels had to be feeling pretty good about their chances.
But I think UNC forgot about all of the championship trophies plastered around the stadium, because the second half was a completely different story.
One can only guess at what Amonte Hiller told her team at halftime, but the Cats came out of the break with a new purpose. They controlled the ball better, slowly chipped away at the lead and with 18 minutes left took the lead for good. This was about the time the air came out of the Tar Heels fans. It was a similar story so many other team’s fan had felt when the hopes of upsetting the national champs disappeared into Lake Michigan.
UNC would try and make a final run, but from the sideline it looked like business as usual for the Cats as they started their tactics of running down the clock. If you’re unfamiliar with lacrosse, there is no shot clock so a team can essentially play keep away for minutes and minutes on end to secure a victory. And NU does it best.
The Wildcats were led by fiery senior, Shannon Smith, the team’s leading scorer (45 goals) and reigning Tewaaraton Award winner – the equivalent of football’s Heisman Trophy. Notable standouts also include the speedy Taylor Thorton and solid goalkeeper Brianne LoManto.
But what’s best about watching the Wildcats play is that even if you don’t recognize the names of the star players or understand all of the rules and whistles (there are a lot), you can appreciate the skill and dominance at which NU seems to so effortlessly dismiss one opponent after another. The last team to reach this level of success in Chicago? That’s right, it was Jordan’s Bulls. But unlike Jordan’s Bulls that stopped at six championships, this program shows no signs of slowing.
Be sure to check out the Wildcats as they begin their NCAA tournament road to a seventh national championship in May. You can get all of their updates and schedules here.