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Lacrosse: Hoping for a Good Friday

Coming off a no good, very bad week, in which it inexplicably lost two games in a row for the first time since 2003, the NU lacrosse team looks to rebound this weekend, starting with a game tonight against Ohio State, followed by a match Sunday against Stanford.

It’s NU’s last home stand of the regular season, and Sunday’s game will be Senior Night. Both of those opponents, like almost every team on NU’s schedule, are ranked, with OSU coming in at No. 20 and Stanford at No. 7.

The OSU match (gametime 7 p.m. CT) will be pretty critical for conference tournament seeding.  The American Lacrosse Conference standings are jumbled in the middle. Florida has locked up the No. 1 seed, going a perfect 5-0, but after the Gators, NU and Penn State are 2-2, and OSU and Johns Hopkins are 1-2. Vanderbilt, which hosts the conference tournament May 5-7, brings up the rear at 1-4. Top two seeds get byes in the first round.

Some good news for the Wildcats: despite their two losses last week to Florida and John Hopkins, which dropped NU (12-2 overall) in the coaches' poll to No. 5, NU still is ranked No. 1 in RPI, largely due to strength of schedule. The Wildcats will have played as many as eight teams ranked in the top 10 during the regular season. That bodes well for NU’s chances of getting a top seed in the NCAA tournament, assuming the team can win out, including a potential rematch against Florida in the ALC tournament.

For this weekend’s games, look for NU to get leading scorer Shannon Smith more involved. Smith, who leads the NCAA with 5.57 points per game, was mostly shut down during the Johns Hopkins game, getting just one goal and one assist. As a whole, the offense struggled last week, with a shooting percentage of 37% against Florida and 39% against Johns Hopkins, well off the team’s normal pace of 47%.

Goalie Breezy LoManto will also look to get on track after making just two saves on 14 shots on goal against John Hopkins, by far her worst showing of the season.

Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who was none too pleased with her team after last weekend's games, has put in a few wrinkles into the game plan to get NU back on track.  I had a chance to talk to her yesterday, and she shared some of her thoughts about the season so far, the games ahead and the growth of women’s lacrosse across the country.

Even if you don’t care about our lacrosse team, hit the jump to read her comments, because you’ll get a good idea of the kind of coach she is and how lucky Northwestern is to have her. She hasn't won multiple IWLCA Coach of the Year awards for nothing. Last year, Amonte Hiller signed a contract extension that will keep her in Evanston until at least 2015, so our string of lacrosse success will stay intact for years to come.


SoP: You guys had a rough time last weekend, with losses to Florida and Johns Hopkins. How has the team responded in practice this week?

KAH: They seem like they’re pretty determined. You never really can tell until the game comes. We’ve made some changes, personnel changes, moved some things around, really given the girls a chance to reprove themselves. I think that they’re in a good place right now, but I can’t really say until we play Friday night. We’ll test out some of these changes that we’ve made and see where we’re at. 

SoP: Not to give away any trade secrets, but what kind of changes have you made?

KAH: It’s just personnel-wise, switching some people around, nothing too drastic. We just tried to give our offense a little more experience and leadership, so we moved some of our veterans down to attack. The thing is, we’re getting a lot of opportunities because we’re still so successful at draws, but we’re just not converting. That was really the focus this week, to see that we convert on the opportunities we do get and be a little more poised. 

SoP: You’ve got another tough couple of games coming up, against Ohio State on Friday and Stanford on Sunday. Both of those teams are ranked in the top 20. What challenges will OSU and Stanford present?

KAH: Ohio State is a unique challenge because their coaches are very familiar with us. [Head coach] Alexis [Venachanos] coached with me and [assistant coach] Christy [Finch] played for me. Alexis took over the program this summer, and they struggled a bit in the beginning of the season, but they’re really turned it up as of late and have been gaining momentum and confidence. I think it’ll be a great challenge for us on Friday. It’s so important because of our conference. We’ve already put ourselves in a bind in terms of conference play, but we’re hopeful we can pull out another win.

On Sunday, against Stanford, they’re a real solid team, real disciplined. They’re going to be coming in gunning for us, just like every team. This is a good opportunity for our girls to bounce back and show that they can be mentally strong and really define what they want this team to be.

SoP: You said on Saturday after the loss to Johns Hopkins that "this group has wasted a lot of time." What did you mean by that?

KAH: A lot of times when you’re very successful as a program, you tend to just be comfortable in what you’re doing, because why would you change when you’re getting wins? As a coaching staff, we don’t really subscribe to that. Regardless of wins, we had a lot of concerns about things that were happening on the field that we needed to tighten up. They’ve really gotten a wake-up call because of the two losses this past weekend. Unfortunately that’s the nature of people, that sometimes you don’t realize that you need to change until something bad happens. That’s the challenge of being on top, and it’s gotten for us harder and harder every season. I think the girls are primed and ready to get better now, more than ever, but we’re a couple of weeks away from the end of the season, so that’s what I meant by wasting time, where they could have been a little more focused. 

SoP: There’s been some chatter on message boards and some lacrosse sites saying this Northwestern team isn’t at the same level as previous teams, and they’re saying you’re not necessarily a lock for a championship run. Do you agree with them? 

KAH: I don’t really care what other people say about us. If I focused in on that, I’d probably go crazy. I think this team has great potential. I think we have more athleticism than we had last year. It’s just a matter of coming together and getting that breakthrough, and we haven’t really had that this year. Once we get that, you’re going to see this team is very talented and we do have a lot of strengths. And you know what, in terms of the tournament, it’s really anybody’s ballgame. Look at the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments this year. Those are prime examples of how it doesn’t matter what your seed is, where you came from. You get a clean slate in NCAAs and you get to go out and prove it. We have to just stay focused on what we know about this team and let all outside influences fade away, because it just doesn’t matter.

SoP: Going back to 2000, when you were hired to lead this program from club status to varsity, what made you decide to come to NU?

KAH: I just felt that the location, the academics, the sports tradition at this university within the BigTen, it was really a place where you could bring in a women’s lacrosse program and be very successful. There’s a lot of bright, young women who play the sport and are very talented, so it’s not a tough sell for me to sell this university, where you can get a great education and come play for one of the top teams in the country. I really like the people at Northwestern, I like the philosophy and I felt like it was a really good fit for me. It was a good chance for me to take an opportunity for a head coaching position, my first position. Honestly at the time, they took a chance on me, because I didn’t have a lot of experience.

SoP: Chicago is a nontraditional lacrosse market, far from the sport’s hotbeds on the East Coast. How far has Chicago come in the 10+ years you’ve been at Northwestern?

KAH: It’s come a long way. There are some Illinois kids that are really making waves at the Division I level. I watched a game Tuesday night, Georgetown vs. Loyola (Md.), and [Georgetown’s] Kathleen Dwyer had a fantastic game. Molly Quirke is having a great year at Duke. There’s kids [from Chicago] all over the country playing for top schools. That’s pretty exciting. I think Illinois lacrosse has come a great distance, and it’s getting better all the time.

SoP: How much has your Northwestern lacrosse program played a role in improving the Illinois lacrosse landscape?

KAH: Yeah, we had a big role, not only in girls lacrosse, but also boys lacrosse, just being high profile. I think this sport’s growth is at a high level. It just gives me so much pride to know that I had a hand in that and that I can help these kids fulfill maybe a dream of theirs,  where they get to play at the next level, whether it’s club, Division III, Division I, whatever it is.

SoP: Given the growth of women’s lacrosse, do you think it will become a BigTen sport?

KAH: I think so. I hope so. I’ve heard some talk from some different schools. We need six [schools to sponsor lacrosse to make it an official BigTen sport], and so we’re a ways away. [Ohio State and Penn State are the other BigTen schools with varsity women’s lacrosse programs.] But I definitely think it’s on the horizon. Just seeing schools like Florida and USC add lacrosse, that’s the direction this sport is going. Those are two of the top sports schools in the country, and to have them add lacrosse shows there’s a commitment from athletic directors at the highest level. Hopefully, more SEC, Pac-[12], BigTen schools will add lacrosse because those are some of the most powerful conferences. 

SoP: How challenging is it to recruit from Chicago, where there’s not necessarily a lot of elite lacrosse being played at the high school and club level?

KAH: We run camps and go out to tournaments and talk to high school and club coaches. Luckily we’re in the media, since we’re a top program, so we get attention from some top kids. Northwestern’s still a very different choice. Lacrosse was born and bred on the East Coast. A lot of kids want to stick with that, especially schools that have men’s programs, since people will sometimes know more about those schools.

SoP: Does NU not having a men’s program handicap you with recruiting?

KAH: I don’t think it does, but I just think that sometimes you hear about those programs a little more, since you see the men’s programs on TV and whatnot. But I don’t think it handicaps us, and in fact, I think it makes our program that much more special [not being overshadowed].

SoP: What do you look for in a recruit?

KAH: I look for kids that are going to be mentally strong, hardworking, good people that are going to be well-rounded and have a good experience here at Northwestern, where they can relate to our team and have a great education and really commit to everything this athletic department is about, not just on the field, but off the field with community service and everything.

SoP: One last question I have to ask: what’s it like having your husband on staff? [Scott Hiller, a former professional men’s lacrosse coach, is an assistant volunteer coach for the team.]

KAH: [laughs] It’s great. I think we work pretty well together. We challenge each other, so it’s not a comfortable situation. We’re always pushing each other and wanting to be better. I think that when you get comfortable, sometimes it’s too easy. Scott has really been able to push me to really think outside the box. He’s a sports fanatic, so he’s bringing things from all different areas, as am I. We have great collaboration amongst our staff, not just with Scott and myself, but also with [assistant coaches] Ann Elliot and Hillary Fratzke. We work hard at putting everything that we have into it. For Scott and myself, this is pretty much our life, and we enjoy it.