This article on 2008 Lacrosse Magazine Person of the Year Kelly Amonte Hiller appeared in the December 2008 issue.
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by Clare Lochary and Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff
Kelly Amonte Hiller presses on, for her team and her sport.
© Kevin P. Tucker
Defender Christy Finch unexpectedly found herself charging to
the goal during the 2008 NCAA championship game. Penn dared her to
shoot, and with a lane wide open, she did.
Finch accomplished some amazing things in her collegiate lacrosse career, not the least of which was getting her stoic head coach, Kelly Amonte Hiller, to crack a smile during a national championship game. Amonte Hiller did just that as Finch slipped a rare goal past Sarah Waxman to give Northwestern an 8-3 lead in the second half of an eventual 10-6 victory.
Prompting that flicker of a grin is at least as impressive as being a Tewaaraton Award finalist. Amonte Hiller has a world-class game face, with eyes shielded by designer sunglasses and her mouth set in a grim line. The world shrinks down to 120 by 70 yards. Time stops.
But seeing Finch, known more for checks than goals, have a breakout moment brought Amonte Hiller back to a spring day in 2006. Finch, a raw but talented sophomore out of Ohio, was going through the motions in practice. Amonte Hiller yanked her to the sidelines and asked her why she was throwing her talent away.
“Christy, I don’t understand. If you worked hard, you could be an All-American. You could be Defender of the Year,” Amonte Hiller remembers telling Finch. “You have so much potential and you’re just…rolling.”
Finch was stunned, not so much by the criticism but by the expectations.
“When she says something, you believe it,” Finch, who indeed became a two-time IWLCA/US Lacrosse Defender of the Year, says now.
So how could Amonte Hiller help but beam when Finch scored just her third goal in three years?
“Everyone had smiles on their faces, including myself, which I don’t usually do too much during games,” says Amonte Hiller.
What Amonte Hiller usually does during games is win. She is 111-24 in seven seasons as a head coach, including a 21-1 record and fourth consecutive NCAA Division I title in 2008. Northwestern has stretched the boundaries of lacrosse — tactically, geographically and, some say, ethically.
In 2008, Amonte Hiller was as polarizing as any figure in lacrosse.
Fans appreciated how the Wildcats responded after losing 2007 Tewaaraton winner Kristen Kjellman to graduation and having Meredith Frank slowed by a torn Achilles tendon; and how Amonte Hiller has built a tight-knit community of players and alumni that has raised the bar for success in the lacrosse world and for Northwestern athletics at large.
Detractors accused her of running up scores and perpetuating a rough style of play. Most recently, she opposed IWLCA legislation that sought to curtail early recruiting, such as offering scholarships to high school juniors, a practice some say she started.
“If people want to put this on me because we’re successful, you know, that’s fine,” says Amonte Hiller. “But really, truly, I’m looking out for the expansion of the sport. And there’s a lot of things that we could do to help this sport grow, and right now the things that we’re doing are making it more exclusive.”
Northwestern’s signature tactic is its high-pressure defense, a simple and relentless strategy that makes other teams uncomfortable. The Wildcats opportunistically pounce on mistakes. You can’t get complacent.
Kelly Amonte Hiller, Lacrosse Magazine’s 2008 Person of the Year, never gets complacent — not on herself, her team or her sport.