The sticks of LI head west

Think of the East Coast as lacrosse’s breadbasket. Kids learn to play here before perfecting it at the collegiate level. It’s not unusual for Long Island athletes to head to lacrosse powerhouse schools upstate, in Massachusetts or down in the Carolinas. But it is surprising that a Midwestern program that languished for years has now become a perennial champion, fueled largely by Long Island recruits.

Before Kelly Amonte-Hiller, head coach of Northwestern’s woman’s lacrosse, arrived on the Illinois campus in 2000, the school’s last national championship came in 1941—for men’s fencing. Now the Wildcats are in the midst of one of the great runs in college sports history. They’ve captured 7 national titles since 2005 and Long Island has played a pivotal role in their success.

Over the last few years that success has started front and center with the draw. Win draws and your team controls possessions and tempo. Control the pace and the victories often follow. Bay Shore native and Northwestern senior Alyssa Leonard is the NCAA’s all-time draws winner—she’s really possessive.

Leonard is the latest headliner, but she’s just one of six locals on the team. They are all top contributors: Three of the team’s top four scorers hail from Long Island. And while Leonard prepares to graduate after this season, reinforcements are coming. “There’s definitely a connection,” said Kara Mupo, a redshirt junior and Rocky Point graduate who arrived at Northwestern with Leonard in the fall of 2010. “When I was going through the recruiting process, Brianne LoManto came from my high school and she was at Northwestern. And Jess Russo [Port Jefferson], Lacey Vigmostad [Northport], Shannon Smith [West Babylon]— started the Long Island connection to Northwestern. It’s a pretty powerful recruiting tool.”

Leonard knew nothing of the dynasty or its local ties when she was encouraged to attend Northwestern’s summer camp after her junior year of high school. She’d only been playing lacrosse for four months but she had unquestionable athletic ability—she’d finish high school with 14 varsity letters in 4 sports. Despite a breakout junior season Leonard was a relative unknown when she arrived at the Wildcat’s summer camp, but she left an impression. “A lot of the counselors—who are my players—came up to me during the camp and said, ‘She’s a great kid. We have to get her,’” Amonte-Hiller recalled. “In addition to playing well, she impressed everyone with her personality and that sold us.”

West Islip’s Lindsay Darrell, a great finisher around the net, will join Babylon’s Shelby Fredericks at Northwestern next fall as the latest Long Island recruits. “The players on Long Island have shown they can compete at the highest level,” Amonte- Hiller said. “We’ve got a couple of kids coming in next year that are really strong players and will be in the future.”

Two national championships and three Final Four appearances later, Leonard is slated to finish as one of the most decorated players in NCAA history. It’s the effort dynasties are built upon and a Long Island cornerstone continues to anchor Northwestern’s foundation.

jason molinet

Jason Molinet spent three years at as regional editor and was a reporter at Newsday for a decade. He is a four-time Press Club of Long Island award winner. Molinet celebrates his Cuban heritage, reads Ernest Hemingway and roots for the Miami Heat.