Northwestern And UMass Coaches Once Linked Together
May 7, 2009
In order for the Massachusetts women's lacrosse to advance to the second round, it will have to get past the best collection of lacrosse players in the country - a group that their own coach helped assemble.
Before Alexis Venechanos became the coach at UMass, she spent three years working under arguably the greatest current coach in lacrosse, Kelly Amonte Hiller. Now she will face her old boss and current friend in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Venechanos tries to downplay the history that she had at Northwestern, claiming they are just another opponent.
"Once the game starts it doesn't matter who we're playing against," Venechanos said. Venechanos was the assistant coach alongside Amonte Hiller from 2004-06 before taking the job with UMass. She was instrumental in recruiting many of the players that have helped the Wildcats be so dominant, having won the last four national championships. In addition to helping out with just about every other aspect of the team.
"She was involved in recruiting; she was the goalie coach; she was in charge of the defense; she had a lot of responsibilities; we only had three coaches so everyone shared responsibility," Amonte Hiller said. "She did a great job spearheading that recruiting."
The two met back when Venechanos was still in college, where she was the starting goalkeeper for Maryland. Amonte Hiller, who had played at and graduated from Maryland in 1996, held a number of training camps that Venechanos attended. The two shared the common experience of playing on a national championship team in Maryland. Amonte Hiller won national titles in 1995 and 1996 while Venechanos won them in 2000 and 2001 - the pair bonded quickly.
"I think the alumni of Maryland are a pretty tight-knit group," Amonte Hiller said. "We try to keep in close contact and I just became friends with Lex right out of that."
"We definitely have a lot of pride in the [Maryland] program and I think that pride bonds us, we were all coached by the same coach [Cindy Timchal] and we all have similar experiences," Amonte Hiller continued.
When Venechanos was a senior about to graduate college in 2003 Amonte Hiller had an opening on the Northwestern staff. She called Venechanos who glady accepted her offer. Together, they transformed a team that had been a club sport as recently as 2001, into a national powerhouse.
Along the way, Venechanos learned a great deal about how to build a program, how to recruit players and create a winning attitude. These are all lessons that helped Venechanos coach the Minutewomen to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years, in just her third year as head coach.
The two coaches have stayed in close contact since Venechanos left the program. They call each other every week, and have talked with each other in the week leading up to Sunday's game.
"[We talk] about our programs, Alexis often calls to get advice and well we're friends; we talk about everything," Amonte Hiller said.
One major difference between the coaches is their chosen preparation. UMass has talked a great deal about Northwestern's style; it has watched film off its 22-5 defeat on March 25 and are trying to fine tune its gameplan.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has been focusing on improving its own play and hasn't yet discussed the Minutewomen.
"We don't really talk about the other team; we just get a gameplan of what we want to execute and how we are going to defend them," Amonte Hiller said.
The two coaches will remain friends regardless of the outcome of the game; but only one coach can advance, the other can only smile and say "good luck in the next round."
Scott Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org