A year ago, after watching Virginia defeat Princeton for the NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse Championship, a reporter from another lacrosse publication suggested that Virginia and Princeton would easily return the best teams in the country in 2005 and that both would have a shot to make it to the championship game again. I responded, "Yeah, if they could get by Northwestern". He laughed. I laughed, although I was dead serious. In 2004, the Wildcats had finished 15-3 without a senior in the starting line-up. They gave eventual champion, Virginia a run for their money in the NCAA quarterfinals. And, they had a head coach who would stop at nothing to take her team to the next level.
A year later, Kelly Amonte-Hiller and Northwestern stand on top of the women's lacrosse world, having completed the most remarkable lacrosse feat of the young century. The Wildcats not only won the National Championship only four years into their existence (or re-existence), but they did not lose a game this season, finishing an incredible 21-0. Only five of their 21 wins were decided by five goals or less, and if you take away their season-opening 6-5 win over North Carolina on Feb. 20, the Wildcats basically had every game won heading into the final minutes of play the rest of the season.
When you break down the big picture behind Northwestern's incredible 2005 season, it is clear that the Wildcats were as successful as they were unlikely to be successful:
Location: Without a doubt the most incredible facet of the Northwestern national championship was the fact that they are the first lacrosse program at any collegiate level outside of the eastern time-zone to win a national championship. It is a truly amazing feat considering that in order to recruit the talent to compete for a national title, Amonte had to convince recruits to attend a college that is the only school in the State of Illinois to field a varsity women's lacrosse team. Not only is Northwestern in a different time-zone, but they are in a position where every away game is an overnight trip, most require flights, and most of the team would not be able to play regularly in front of friends and family. That's a tough sell to top high school players, who could attend one of the traditional powerhouses and be fairly close to home. When you think about it, if you're a top high school player in New England, you could go to Boston University, Dartmouth, Boston College, or New Hampshire, compete for a national championship, and still be within weekend laundry distance of home. You can also ride a bus to most away games and not have to endure the rigors of constant travel. A Long Island or upstate New York recruit could go 4-5 hours in any direction and play for top teams in the New York vicinity (Hofstra, Syracuse, Cornell, Princeton, UConn, etc.), the Mid Atlantic States (too many to list), or even New England. And a Pennsylvania or Mid Atlantic area recruit could do the same. Going to Northwestern is a commitment to traveling great distances to play the best teams in the country and could make choosing the school a tough sell. Apparently not so tough for Kelly Amonte-Hiller.
The fact that a team far from the eastern seaboard won a national championship has to have athletic directors everywhere thinking about whether or not they should be the next school to add the sport. Louisville is already on board to add women's lacrosse, but one must wonder how many Big-10 schools are interested in adding women's lacrosse. The addition of women's lacrosse is instant geographic diversity for a school such as Michigan or Michigan State, and with Ohio State and Penn State already fielding teams, a potential Big-10 women's lacrosse conference is only a few schools away.
Any way you see it, what Kelly Amonte-Hiller has done is prove to the rest of the athletics world that a top women's lacrosse team could be built somewhere else besides the east coast. The 2005 season for Northwestern could have the same affect on women's lacrosse that Wayne Gretzky's trade to the Los Angeles Kings had for the NHL. When Gretzky brought #99 to L.A., NHL franchises spread like wildfire throughout the west and southwest. On a smaller scale, could Northwestern's national championship do the same for women's lacrosse? Only time will tell.
The ACC/Ivy League Dynasty: In my opinion, the greatness of Northwestern's feat was only slightly due to their non-traditional location. The real story behind the story here is the end of the ACC/Ivy League dynasty in division I women's lacrosse. There have been 24 national champions in the history of division I women's lacrosse. 16 of those Championships were won by teams in either the ACC or Ivy League, including every national championship between 1990 (Harvard) and 2004 (Virginia). While the ACC and Ivy League remain the two best conferences in women's lacrosse, there were times it seemed that only Georgetown could potentially break through and win the division I crown. Now that the string of titles for the ACC and Ivy League is over, one has to wonder if the playing field is beginning to level and if the rest of the division I conferences are beginning to catch up.
The Current Recruiting Climate: It is amazing that it took only four years for Kelly Amonte-Hiller to build the best lacrosse team in the Nation. What is more amazing is that she did so within the current recruiting climate that exists in lacrosse. When Northwestern decided to bring back women's lacrosse four years ago after a long hiatus, they did not bring it back to the same climate that existed the last time the Wildcats had a team. Recruiting today is probably a bigger challenge than coaching games. High school lacrosse players commit to colleges before their senior years begin, sometimes even earlier. Kids are pressured to make immediate decisions regarding colleges or risk losing their scholarship offers. It's tough out there, and to convince recruits to abandon the opportunity to play at a top, established program to help build a brand-new one is quite an undertaking. The way the women's division I coaching revolving door works, had Amonte-Hiller waited a couple of years, she probably would have become the head coach of a top division I program that was already established. But she chose to take the challenge of building a program from scratch. Granted, Northwestern has the academic reputation to draw just about anybody from anywhere, but so does Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, BU, and the Ivy League programs, all of which were fielding teams when Northwestern started. Four years ago, it probably seemed impossible to build a top program in a decade, let alone four years, and Amonte did it. Essentially, Amonte did the impossible in today's recruiting climate, and when you add to the mix Northwestern's location and conference affiliation, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime sort of feat.
Northwestern Athletics: A lot has happened since the last time a Northwestern team won a national championship: Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive baseball games, 11 different Presidents moved into the White House, and a man walked on the moon. In 1941, the Northwestern men's fencing team won the National Championship. Ironically, Northwestern no longer has a men's fencing team. Since then, not one Wildcat team has claimed a national title.
Not to knock on Northwestern, as it is one of the finest institutions in the nation, but let's face it, when the Big-10 was named, it did not have Northwestern sports in mind. While the Big-10 has programs such as Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, and others to boost its athletics profile, it would seem that in most sports, Northwestern is there to improve the overall academic profile for the conference. While Northwestern athletics are not weak by any stretch of the imagination, it is not an institution renowned for athletics excellence, either. With the exception of women's tennis - which won the Big-10 championship this year, and football, where a league fourth place earns a national ranking - most Wildcat teams are in the middle, well lower middle, of the pack in the Big-10. Here's a look at where Northwestern's teams placed in the Big-10 this year:
You can see now why winning the National Championship was a huge deal at Northwestern and that Kelly Amonte-Hiller and Northwestern simply began and finished a lacrosse revolution in the span of one academic class matriculation. Four years ago, all indications were that Northwestern hired a great coach for a very difficult job. There is no doubt that Northwestern had the tools, personnel and investment to field a great lacrosse program, but nobody could have expected, then, what has happened now. Now, it is a proven fact that lacrosse can flourish away from the east coast, and at a school without much of an athletics reputation, and that success can be achieved in a hurry. Women's lacrosse has exploded during the last decade at the college level, but thanks to Kelly Amonte-Hiller and the 'Cats, the real explosion may have only just begun.
OTHER WOMEN'S LACROSSE CHAMPIONSHIP NOTES:
ON STONEHILL'S MIKE DALY: Obviously, the Northwestern national championship is the story of the year for women's lacrosse, but if I had to pick a runner-up, it would be the second national championship for Mike Daly and Stonehill College. The Chieftans embarked on an undefeated season themselves, and statistically were the most dominant women's lacrosse team at any level in the nation this season. Stonehill scored double-digits in every game they played, and did not allow a team to score more than 10 goals in a game (in fact, only three times did teams score 10 on Stonehill). It was an incredible season for Stonehill lacrosse. Most impressive is that their head coach is one of the most humble, selfless gentlemen you will ever come across. Anybody who has ever met Mike Daly will agree that there is no finer person in this sport, and the fact that he has worked such wonders at Stonehill is no surprise to me. Daly is the first, and only, male head coach to win a women's lacrosse national championship, and now he has done it twice. Some big Division I school realizing, like Georgetown did, that the gender of the head coach is of marginal impact on the sidelines, will likely scoop Daly up soon enough.
ON TOURNAMENT ATTENDANCE: 4,634 fans bought tickets to the NCAA Championship game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. While the attendance figures seem to greatly surpass previous attendance figures the last couple of years at Princeton and Syracuse, I will still submit that women's lacrosse is not going to get the big-time exposure its championship deserves until the games and fans are brought together. Let's face it. Most people go away Memorial Day Weekend. And when somebody plans all year to go away one weekend, will they really travel the weekend before? Probably not. Those who attended last weekend's championships were probably mainly fans with close ties to both Virginia and Northwestern, and many lacrosse fans from the Annapolis/Baltimore area. Considering the sheer numbers of lacrosse players in the area, I will submit that the crowd was a bit on the dissapointing side, and as usual, adults in attendance far outnumbered the kids.
The simple fact is that playing a Championship the weekend before Memorial Day is never going to draw for the National Championship that women's lacrosse deserves. But, if you move the games back one week and play in the same location every year, the fans will come.
I have said it before, and I will say it again. There is only one logical time and place for the NCAA women's lacrosse championships - Memorial Day Weekend at the US Lacrosse National Tournament in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Without going into too much detail, the National Tournament is perhaps the finest event that US Lacrosse sponsors every year with a national high school level championship tournament, a college club level championship tournament, and annual exhibitions by Team USA. It is thousands of women's lacrosse enthusiasts and participants in one place at the same time, and it is during a holiday weekend at Lehigh University. Lehigh has a massive football stadium that is an ideal location for the NCAA Championships. The venue is perfect, the fans are already in place, and National Tournament is only a week after the current NCAA Championship takes place.
It is almost too logical to suggest that the NCAA Championships should take place during National Tournament. Should these two incredible events cooperate and cohabitate, the attendance records for both of our major women's events would be shattered the first year. Hopefully, US Lacrosse and the NCAA will one day see it that way.
June 2, 2005
All Photos by E-lacrosse Staff and John Strohsacker