Usually those within an empire do not recognize the fall of it until well after its collapse. But sometimes, the end is clear. And after a 17-5 thrashing at the hands of Maryland Sunday, it's clearer than ever: Northwestern lacrosse's decade of dominance has come to an end. The streak of 10 straight Final Four appearances has been snapped.
The emperor no longer reigns.
While we knew going into the season that this was going to be a bit of a rebuilding year with such a young team, and we knew going into the Elite Eight that beating Maryland would be tough, this has the feel of the end of an era – like Pop and Duncan's Spurs losing in the first round to the Clippers. With that feeling in mind, now is a good time to take a look back at the peerless decade that Northwestern women's lacrosse has achieved with coach Kelly Amonte Hiller at the helm.
But first, a brief aside, to the extraordinary Amonte Hiller:
You spoiled us. You spoiled us with your seemingly effortless shoveling of coal into the Northwestern women's lacrosse dynasty locomotive. You spoiled us by resurrecting a program that, in 2002, had been defunct for almost a decade, and then submitting an undefeated season just three years later. You spoiled us when you topped that by winning another championship the next year. And the year after. And the year after. You spoiled us when you topped those four straight national championships by adding a fifth with a second undefeated season.
The streak had to end sometime. It did in 2010, as Amonte Hiller and her team were shooting for the vaunted double three-peat. That team lost a heartbreaker in the final to Amonte Hiller’s alma mater, Maryland, after taking a commanding 6-0 lead to open the game. But even in losing, the Wildcats remained record-setting: the final set the attendance record for a women's lacrosse match in the United States.
After graduating only two seniors from that team, things were right back on track in 2011 and 2012, as the program added two more national championships to its short but decorated history – bringing the haul to a preposterous seven in eight years.
The numbers are absurd; they harken back to the days of John Wooden patrolling the sidelines of Pauley Pavilion. Five straight championships. Seven championships in eight years. Two undefeated seasons. Ten straight trips to the Final Four. Eight championship game appearances. Eleven straight NCAA tournament bids. A 203-20 record since 2005, including an incredible 106-3 stretch that brought five championships in a row. Five seasons in which a Northwestern player took home the Tewaaraton Award (lacrosse's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy). Forty-six All-Americans.
As everlasting as the program seemed to be, it was a bit of a shock when the streak of championship game appearances finally ended two years ago, but even that was at the hands of the eventual national champion, North Carolina. What’s more, last year it was another semifinal loss to another eventual champion.
So while this may be the end of one era, the type of success Amonte Hiller was having was unfathomable and, probably, unsustainable due to a few factors.
Besides the fact that seven championships in eight years requires an incredible amount of hard work, keeping that edge that drives coaches and players to get up early on the weekends, stay late after practice and do all the things required to be elite is exceedingly difficult. In addition, Northwestern is always going to be an underdog when it comes to recruiting talent because so much of it is concentrated in the East, a full plane ride away for Amonte Hiller or her staff.
Another thing to consider is the growth of the sport. While undoubtedly a good thing, it does lead to a dilution of the talent pool – making it harder for one team to remain dominant for extended periods of time.
It's almost impossible to decide the most impressive storyline of the past decade and a half or so, but here is another to consider: not only was it an incredible undertaking to steer a program from the oblivion of club level to undefeated in just three short years, but to do it while operating in the Midwest, far from the traditional talent hotbed of the sport – the Eastern Seaboard – elevates Northwestern's success from improbable to beyond belief.
What is sometimes overlooked in retrospect is the sheer speed with which Amonte Hiller constructed her impenetrable empire: consider the tale of the twins from Indiana, Ashley and Courtney Koester.
This anecdote can serve as a proper analogy for the program’s meteoric rise. Amonte Hiller noticed them playing flag football across the street from her office and saw flashes of speed and athleticism she thought she could harness. She asked them if they had any interesest in playing lacrosse and they replied they had never played before. Amonte Hiller persisted and got them to join the team. Three years later, they were All-Americans and part of that memorable first undefeated season.
Another item to add to Amonte Hiller’s impressive ledger is her ability to go into non-traditional areas and pluck out precious stones.
Two prime illustrations are Taylor Thornton and Selena Lasota. Thornton originally hails from Dallas, about the last place people think of in terms of lacrosse talent. But, undeterred, Amonte Hiller went into Texas and plucked out a gem. Thornton started all 22 games of her freshman season and was named a third-team All-American. She emerged as one of the top players in the country in the ensuing years, her career culminating with two national championships.
Lasota is similarly from a generally overlooked area, Vancouver Island, but could end up just as successful as Thornton. She was Northwestern's best player as a freshman, and should continue to get better.
Alas, at one point or another, all good things must come to an end. Today, that day came. In fact, it had been coming. We knew this had been a down year, at least relative to expectations. But with the top-rated recruiting class brought in this past year, and another stellar one following it, Northwestern lacrosse will be back. This shouldn't be a time of worry.
Instead, it should be a time of celebration – celebration of one of the most astounding decade-long runs in the history of college sports.