Tuesday, May 27, 2008

National champions

Congratulations to the Northwestern University women's lacrosse team, which won its fourth consecutive national championship Sunday evening in Towson, Maryland. By beating Penn 10-6 in the tournament final the Wildcats wrapped up another NCAA title in style, defeating the only team to beat them this year.

Much of the credit goes to coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. An NCAA champion during her playing days at the University of Maryland, Amonte Hiller has built something unprecedented: a national lacrosse dynasty based in the Midwest.

Lacrosse is widely viewed as an East Coast sport, played mostly at prep schools, colleges and universities along the Atlantic seaboard. Like platform tennis, it's been big in New England for decades, spreading more recently to the central states.

When I attended New Trier Township High School in suburban Chicago, we were one of only eight high schools in Illinois to field a lacrosse team. And that was boys' LAX; girls' lacrosse was on no one's radar screen then. It sure is now.

When Northwestern won the NCAA tournament in 2005, it was the first national lacrosse title at any level—private or public high school, college club team or college varsity—for any American team of either gender based outside of the Eastern Time Zone.

They got more media attention when a few of them wore flip-flops to meet President Bush at the White House (quel scandale!) than they did for winning a national championship in a somewhat obscure sport, but the lacrosse establishment certainly noticed.

NU proved the surprise title was no fluke by reeling off three more national championships in a row. In fact, they got better as time went on, going undefeated for the entire season en route to their second title. They built an even longer streak over the following two years, winning 36 straight before falling to Penn a month ago in the regular-season finale. All told, over the last four seasons, they're an eye-popping 82-3.

Things look good for next year too. NU will lose only one key player from the current squad, senior defender Christy Finch. They've weathered bigger losses before, such as last year's graduation of 2006 and 2007 Tewaaraton Trophy winner (i.e. two-time national player of the year) Kristen Kjellman.

There's a great human interest angle. Northwestern has recruited some of its best players from an unlikely place, the little town of Westwood, Massachusetts (population 14,000), where local resident Leslie Frank started a youth lacrosse program in 1998. She started coaching the Westwood High School girls' team the next year and quickly built an unstoppable force much like Northwestern's current team.

Although a state champ and star player at Westwood, Kjellman was lightly recruited by the traditional college lacrosse powers. The overlooked player took a chance on fellow Massachusetts native Amonte Hiller's unproven Northwestern program and they made beautiful music together. Kjellman became the consensus best player in the nation and NU's top all-time scorer, leading the upstart Wildcats to the national championship.

Numerous players have followed the trail Kjellman blazed from Westwood to Evanston. One of them is Leslie Frank's daughter Meredith Frank, now a sharpshooting Northwestern junior. The unusual tie between the Boston suburb and the midwestern university has grown so strong that some people refer to the college as "Northwestwood."

NU's national dominance is all the more impressive given that Northwestern lacrosse was promoted from club sport to varsity only seven years ago. How far they've come, and how fast.

Congratulations to coach Amonte Hiller and her players and staff from a proud alum.

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