This article on 2008 Lacrosse Magazine Person of the Year Kelly Amonte Hiller appeared in the December 2008 issue.
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As dusk settles on the shore of Lake Michigan, 2008 LM Person of the Year Kelly Amonte Hiller revels in a new dawn for women's lacrosse.
© Anne Ryan
In the Beginning
One fall day in 2000, Amonte Hiller’s husband and volunteer assistant coach Scott Hiller gazed upon a Northwestern lacrosse practice and thought, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
The Wildcats were practicing on Floyd Long Field, an unfenced, muddy patch of earth near the edge of Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Ill. The coaches battled the university marching band about who had first dibs on the space, and eventually they settled for sharing the field. Missed passes and shots abounded, sending balls bouncing between cars onto nearby Sheridan Road, the campus main drag, as the band comically tooted away.
Coming to Northwestern was Scott’s idea. When then-athletic director Rick Taylor called to inquire if Kelly was interested in resurrecting a program once axed for budgetary reasons, she initially scoffed at the idea. The Hillers were newlyweds, happily ensconced in her hometown of Boston.
Scott was in law school. Kelly’s career hadn’t settled into a recognizable shape.
After graduating from Maryland in 1996, with two national championships and two national player of the year awards to her credit, Amonte Hiller worked for Brine and bounced as an assistant between Brown, UMass and Boston University in just four years.
(At Brown, she applied for the head job at age 23. The Bears passed on Amonte Hiller, since as she puts it, “they really weren’t sure if I was serious about coaching.” Think Brown might want a mulligan? The Bears are 54-95 since 1999.)
Amonte Hiller had ideas. Few were willing to listen. She took business classes and briefly explored becoming a professional triathlete before she got the call from Northwestern in summer 2000. She said no thanks.
But Scott had spent eight years as an assistant at Harvard, and he knew head coaching jobs were hard to come by. At his urging, Kelly visited Northwestern’s campus, where large boulders line the Lake Michigan shoreline that leads south towards the Chicago skyline. She fell in love.
Amonte Hiller knew how to run a practice, but had no idea how to navigate the red tape of intercollegiate athletics. Her college nickname was Killer. It took time to adjust to the pace of bureaucracy.
When senior women’s administrator Norren Morris arrived at Northwestern in 2004, she says she and Amonte Hiller “butted heads” at first. “We tried to say, ‘Let’s not run through the wall; let’s build a door and open it.’”
Thus the Hillers found themselves on Floyd Long Field, their voices drowned out by a marching band. Scott wondered what they had gotten into, but Kelly had just hit her stride.
The House That Kelly Built
These days, the Wildcats don’t have to negotiate with the band for practice space. In 2008, they inaugurated Lakeside Field, a beautiful, $2 million facility funded entirely by the university. Philip Hersh, a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune, called it “the House that Kelly Built,” a home for the unlikely lacrosse family she has created in Evanston.
Family is important to Amonte Hiller, who grew up in Hingham, Mass., on a block populated by a huge network of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Her father, Lewis Amonte, was a construction worker until a heart condition forced him to retire while still in his early 30s. He stayed at home and encouraged his four children to excel at athletics. It was their best chance to get an education, and to push themselves a little further in life.