NU lacrosse an inspiration beyond playing field

Phenomenal success with latest NCAA title extends to befriending girl during battle with cancer

Michael Jordan called to wish the Northwestern women's lacrosse team luck. So did Wayne Gretzky and singer Eddie Vedder, the Evanston native who offered the Wildcats pearls of wisdom before and after their latest NCAA title.

"Those are the kind of things you remember for the rest of your life,'' Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.

But after a magnificent seventh national championship, perhaps the most impressive example of the reach of Amonte Hiller's program came Wednesday in the words of a grateful father in Yorktown, N.Y.

"You have no idea how Kelly and her team have helped my daughter get through this,'' Denis Murphy said over the phone.

In 2005, when Murphy's daughter, Jaclyn, was a 10-year-old enduring treatment for medulloblastoma, a form of cancer that preys on children, a mutual friend connected the young lacrosse player with Amonte Hiller. Unbeknownst to the Murphys at the time, a photo of a Maryland women's lacrosse player that inspired Jaclyn on a New York City hospital wall was of Amonte Hiller. In response, Amonte Hiller initially sent Jaclyn a card signed by the team and an invitation to attend a game.

Seven years later, the Northwestern program's dearest friend spent Sunday night in Stony Brook, N.Y., hanging around her "older sisters.'' That's what Jaclyn, now 17 and headed to Marist College cancer-free, calls Northwestern players she celebrated with in the locker room Sunday after they beat Syracuse 8-6 in the NCAA tournament final.

"Jaclyn knows every statistic and keeps in touch with (Northwestern MVP) Shannon Smith and others,'' said her father, who created the Friends for Jaclyn Foundation.

The program currently matches 350 cancer-stricken kids with college teams close to their homes — and it all started when a Midwestern coach offered a sick girl in New York more than an autograph.

"Kelly always has made Jaclyn feel like she's part of it,'' Denis said.

One way to get Amonte Hiller, the tirelessly cheery woman at the center of it, to stop talking so fast is mention her legacy. She is 38.

Days before the Final Four, Amonte Hiller learned of her upcoming induction into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame as a player. Four of Amonte Hiller's former assistants now are head coaches. One other former player is the coach at Massachusetts.

I don't consider it a coincidence that the number of Illinois high schools offering girls lacrosse has increased from 21 to 41 since Northwestern won its first title. I also doubt Northwestern would be playing in Lakeside Stadium or dressing in new locker rooms if not for Amonte Hiller's success.

Beyond assembling an NCAA championship resume that one day could rival UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden's, Amonte Hiller changed the game by recruiting all-around athletes to execute an all-out, aggressive style. Her unique approach requires heavy substituting. Her winning strategy was on display during the Final Four for every coach to copy.

In the semifinal, Amonte Hiller gave freshman defender Jess Carroll her first career start and it helped shut down Maryland's top scorers. In the final, Amonte Hiller rankled Syracuse coach Gary Gait with a stall designed to keep players fresh and protect a lead.

"We stayed calm,'' Amonte Hiller said.

Good thing former Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor, back in 2000, calmed down an antsy 26-year-old uptight over leaving home.

"I was reluctant because I didn't want to move away from the Boston area, but I knew what an amazing university Northwestern was and what potential the program had,'' Amonte Hiller said. "I could never have envisioned this many championships. I could envision being successful and having a chance to win a championship.''

Now when Amonte Hiller sits with her team on the rocks along Northwestern's lakefront campus as a bonding exercise, not even she can comprehend how vast her impact has been. The word dynasty still is "too surreal,'' to consider.

"It'll take time and history to get away from all these championships to appreciate all she has accomplished,'' Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said.

Phillips ordered Amonte Hiller to get away this summer with her husband, Scott, and two young daughters. So next month she will spend three weeks in Massachusetts recharging for next season's biggest opponent: Complacency.

"That's very hard,'' Amonte Hiller acknowledged. "Now when we recruit kids they expect that they're just going to win. We have to work hard as a staff to keep things competitive and hold kids accountable on a daily basis. It would be easy to just take a deep breath and say, 'We're pretty good and doing things the right way.'''

In the lacrosse community and beyond, it would be even easier to agree.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
CHICAGO

More