The late May morning began brisk and chilly, but by midday the sun had emerged from the clouds and radiated down on the fields of the Anheuser-Busch Sports Centre in St. Louis, gentle breezes providing periodic respite from the baking rays.
On a tucked-away field of the sprawling complex, however, the breezes were of little comfort to members of the Northwestern women's lacrosse team. The Wildcats were in a heated battle with the Mustangs of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in the semifinal game of the U.S. Lacrosse Intercollegiate Associates National Championships, and they were trailing 7-3 after Cal Poly's potent offense scored four goals at the end of the first half. Northwestern faced an extremely tough challenge.
Two years ago the Northwestern women's lacrosse team playing in the national championships even at this club level would have been deemed practically impossible. "We'd only have practice twice a week, and a lot of the time, you would show up, and there'd only be five other people there," says junior attacker Patty West. "We didn't have a lot of money, and everything was a struggle."
But all of that changed on Feb. 1, 2000, when it was announced that the team would spend the 2001 season at "elevated club status" before becoming a full-fledged varsity squad in 2002 (the regular season opens in Evanston on March 23 against Ohio State).
Northwestern had fielded varsity women's lacrosse from 1983 to 1991, and the teams were a success on the field, qualifying for the NCAA tournament five times in that span. Unfortunately, off the field, budget issues and a lack of other varsity lacrosse teams in the Midwest caused the program to be cut. This time, however, conditions were perfect for a resurrection of the varsity team. "We knew we had to add one more women's sport to accommodate [the gender equity law] Title IX," says Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor, "and the research we did pointed to the growth of lacrosse, both at the collegiate and at the high school levels." The availability of facilities was also a factor, and Lakeside Field, used as a field hockey venue in the fall, would make a perfect home for lacrosse.
To last year's players, the University's announcement was like winning the lottery. "We were so thrilled when we found out, and it was something we hadn't been expecting at all," says now-graduated Julie Lazarus (WCAS01), a center midfielder and co-captain of the team. "And then there were rumors that our [head] coach was going to be Kelly Amonte Hiller." Amonte Hiller is a legend in the world of women's lacrosse.
Watch her in action during a game, and you can't help but get fired up. She doesn't stand still for too long, sprinting back and forth across the field, even venturing through the opponents' bench into their half of the sideline to follow a play. Occasionally she'll let the referees have it over a missed or erroneous call. "She gets really intense during games and practices," says West with a laugh.
Throughout her career Amonte Hiller has amassed a cornucopia of accolades, including being named an All-American four times and NCAA Division I Lacrosse Player of the Year twice. She led the University of Maryland to two national titles in 1995 and 1996, and she has been a member of the U.S. Women's National Lacrosse Team since 1993, winning World Championships in 1997 and 2001.
"Her background speaks for itself; she instantly lent credence to our program," Taylor says.
Press her about her many awards and accomplishments, though, and coach Amonte Hiller laughs and shrugs them off modestly: "Oh gosh, all that's old news."
Her positive philosophy and her intensity, combined with patience toward her players, have translated into a coaching style that they all rave about, although at first they were apprehensive. "All of us hadn't been coached in so long that we weren't used to practices that were that intense," adds junior attacker Lillian Lardy, the team's leading scorer. "We had this motley crew of players with a wide range of talent and experience, and it was definitely frustrating in the fall."
That motley crew consisted of novices, like junior goalie Kelly Matheson, a former soccer goalkeeper who had never picked up a lacrosse stick before last season, and seasoned veterans who had played since childhood. "We couldn't even string together five passes in a row at first, but [Amonte Hiller] found ways to maximize our skills," Lardy recalls. "I feel I developed my game more in the first week of practice with her coaching than I did in all of high school."
All of the teaching, coaching, boosting, learning and trusting had brought them to St. Louis with a shot at the national club championships. Their record of 20 wins against two losses was ample evidence of their success so far, and two more wins would give them the ultimate finale to a wonderful season.
Back on the field the mood was tense, as the players huddled at halftime. "This is still our game!" asserted coach Amonte Hiller emphatically. "Every score is a big score; we can't let up!"
The Wildcats started off the second half on the right track, scoring early to cut the lead to three, but the Mustangs stormed right back to take an 8-4 lead. As the minutes and seconds of the game, perhaps the season, ticked away, the tension grew more and more palpable.
The Wildcats would score with a final flurry with 47 seconds left to make the score 11-7, but it was too little, too late, and with a harsh, jangling finality, the buzzer sounded, putting an end to their season.
As the Mustangs celebrated on their half of the field, the Wildcats were left to ponder what might have been. It would be easy for an outside observer to remark that the foundation for next year's success and beyond has been well laid. For now, though, the only thing on anybody's mind was the present.
Fifteen minutes after the final horn had sounded, players were still milling around the sideline, not wanting to leave. The players, coaches and even the fans were not ready for closure quite yet. There were some tears, mostly weary smiles and hugs for everyone.
For the three seniors on the team, Lazarus, Kelly Cook (WCAS01) and Susan Garea (WCAS01), there was the difficult realization that they would never get to play on a varsity team, but that they had accomplished something they hadn't before dreamed possible.
"We had a great run," Lazarus said with a pained smile and tears in her eyes. "We came so far, and we came so close."
"Only sweet," she replied without hesitation. "Nothing bitter about this season.
Herman Wang (WCAS01) wishes he could play lacrosse. Instead, he's a freelance writer based in Chicago.