News Article
NEPSAC Athletes and Coaches Have Role in U19 Women's Lacrosse World Championships
SPONSORED BY: SportsGrub

9/9/19

By BOB YORK

The City of Peterborough is located in the southern portion of Ontario, Canada, 78 miles Northeast of Toronto and 167 miles Southwest of Ottawa. It is situated in a largely recreational region of the province, surrounded by rolling hills, rich farmland and neighboring towns – according to Google Map – such as Bridgenorth, Pontypool, Bewdley, Buckhorn and Bailiboro.

Despite its rural setting, the Federation of International Lacrosse opted to make this city of nearly 80,000, the site of its 2019 U19 Women’s Lacrosse World Championships – and it couldn’t have selected a more appropriate host. During its bygone days, Peterborough earned the nickname “The Electric City,” as it was the first town in Canada to use electric streetlights and when the FIL took over the town during the first 10 days of August, sparks spewed once again.  

This year’s Quest to be Best attracted 22 countries, which was the tournament’s largest field ever and in the end, the United States prevailed, besting Canada, 13-3, in the championship game. The victory marked the fifth time in seven tries that the Red, White and Blue captured the tourney, which has been held every four years since its inception in 1995. Australia, meanwhile, wound up being the third team to reach the podium, besting England in the Bronze Medal Game, 13-8. 

Despite an overwhelming international flavor of team rosters, the New England Prep School Athletic Council still managed to play a hand in helping prepare at least four of its rank and file – two coaches and two players – to take part in this international showdown.

The coaches were Kelly Amonte Hiller, a former NEPSAC All-Star at Thayer Academy (92), who is the current women’s lacrosse coach at Northwestern University and the mentor who guided the United States U19 squad to the 2019 World Championship. The other was Catherine Conway, who is the athletic director and girls lacrosse coach at the School of the Holy Child in Rye, N.Y. She is an assistant coach with the Irish Women’s Senior National Team and stopped by the U19 championships, “to do a bit of scouting … to get a look at our future recruits and future opponents.”
     
Another reason why Conway was on hand was to watch, Katherine Forst, one of her players at Holy Child, who was competing for the Irish. Ironically, the last time Conway had seen Forst in action was during last spring’s season opener when she lifted Holy Child to victory via a 10-point – seven goals and three assists – effort. The very next game, however, she suffered a season-ending injury.

“From what I saw of her during the tournament, she looked good competing at this level of competition,” said Conway. “She said she felt good too, so we’re hoping for big things from her this spring.”
 
Rounding out the NEPSAC quartet was Tiana Vazquez, who graduated from the Storm King School, Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., in May and will compete in lacrosse on the Div. I level at the University of Hartford, where she will major in biochemistry. The STS standout played for Team Puerto Rico, which used this tournament to make its international debut in the sport.

“It was exciting to be named coach of this year’s U19 team and it was awesome to achieve the level of success that we did,” said Amonte Hiller, whose own athletic accomplishments were first realized throughout NEPSAC Nation and now, after reaching All-World status in 2005, everybody knows her name. “This was a special group of young women … they were talented athletes who had one goal and that was to win a world championship and they all worked tremendously hard to achieve that goal. I couldn’t be prouder of them or of what they accomplished.”

Amonte Hiller’s return to the USA program gave this former Thayer standout, who earned Independent School League All-Star status for four consecutive years in lacrosse, basketball and soccer, an opportunity to finish a feat she was unable to as a player. Amonte Hiller helped the U.S. win World Cup titles in 1997 and 2001, but despite her worldly efforts, the Red, White and Blue fell in the 2005 finals to Australia. That loss, later coupled with the 2015 setback the U19 team suffered in its finale to Canada, only added to the frustration.

“It was very difficult,” explained Amonte Hiller of that loss in 2005. “I knew it was my last experience as a player, so, I felt the pull of getting involved in USA lacrosse again and hoped to help turn things around … only this time as a coach.”

Coaching, as Amonte Hiller explained, “is what I do and what I do best,” and she wasn’t just blowing smoke when she made that statement. Her resume is second to none. 

Through a 17-year stay at Northwestern, Amonte Hiller has chalked up a record of 296-78, nine Big 10 titles, seven NCAA Championships and 16 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.  She is a five-time Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association Coach of the Year and this year’s Big Ten Coach of the Year and a 2012 inductee into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

As for her playing days, those were pretty awesome, too. 

“I never met a high school athlete with more intensity, dedication, drive and most of all, passion,” said Karen Geromini, who served as Thayer’s athletic director from 1992-2001 as well as the Tigers lacrosse and field hockey coach. “She possessed a passion for competition at the highest level for herself … her teammates … her school. Coaching her was a true highlight of my career.

“Another trait that Kelly had that set her apart from her peers was grit. Back in the early 90s, you didn’t hear the word “grit” very much … especially when describing girls sports, but Kelly had plenty of it,” added Geromini, who is now director of operations and auxiliary programs at The Winsor School.

Geromini, who owns a pretty impressive athletic resume of her own, played both lacrosse and field hockey at the University of New Hampshire and was a member of the Wildcats’ 1985 lacrosse squad that chalked up the school’s one and only national title when she and her teammates captured the NCAA championship.

Geromini’s name also pops up quite frequently in the Wildcat record book, particularly under career (1984-87) milestones where she is second in assists (101) and points (235) and seventh in goals (134). She stands second in assists in a single season (35) and eighth in goals (64). She also owns the fastest time for scoring consecutive goals (:03), which she couldn’t remember accomplishing.   
    
During Amonte Hiller’s time with the Terps lacrosse program, she posted a school record 319 points on 187 goals and 132 assists to help lead Maryland to a pair of NCAA championships. In doing so, Amonte Hiller was named a four-time All-American in lacrosse and in soccer as well – and that’s not all. She was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Female Athlete of the Year in 1996 and was selected as the NCAA’s National Player of the Year in 1995 and 1996. 

Catherine Conway, who helped coach the Irish Senior Women’s squad to a seventh-place finish during the 2019 European Championship earlier this summer thus qualifying for the 2021 World Championships, has taken School of the Holy Child girls lacrosse a long way in a short period of time. The former Boston College and Team U.S.A. standout took over a sub .500 program just five years ago and has turned it into a successful (52-18) program and a N.Y. Independent School contender.

“The kids have really bought into the program … that’s been the big difference,” said Conway, who played at Acton-Boxboro High School in Acton, Mass., and earned a Boston Globe Player of the Year Award for her efforts. “We’ve created a winning culture and it begins in the middle school and that positive outlook sticks with the kids throughout the program.”

Following Conway’s time with Team USA, it was her goal to remain involved with the sport she had come to love and so, thanks to her mother, who is a citizen of Ireland, she sought out a job with the Irish National Team. 

“I Googled the program and saw they had four coaches openings,” said Conway, “so, I showed up for a trial and was offered a position.” That position found her specializing in a rare but yet familiar combination for her of goaltending and draws (face-offs). Plus, she was also named sports information director of the team. 

Conway’s ability to fill such an unusual job description was due to her career at BC. “It was a bit strange, to say the least,” admitted Conway of a career that saw her spend three-and-a-half seasons playing in goal during which time she was credited with stopping 45 percent of the shots she faced, “while I started as a midfielder and did draws during the first half of my junior season … you just do what your team asks of you.”

Katherine Forst is destined to be one of Conway’s building blocks at Holy Child for the next two years, now that she has recovered from the season-ending injury she incurred at the outset of her sophomore campaign. Conway saw Forst was 100 percent back with her own eyes during the U19 festivities as Forst netted a pair of goals and set up another to lead Ireland to a 7-5 win over Chinese Taipei in a final-day battle to determine 19th place in the final standings.

“Katherine’s a heady player, she always knows what she’s doing and she always knows what her teammates are doing when she’s out there,” said Conway. “She’s an accomplished player who makes the people around her better. She’s the type of player you want to build your team around.”

Despite her lack of years, Tiana Vazquez wore numerous hats during her five years at Storm King in doing her part in getting the girls lacrosse program up and running. She had a hand in helping recruit her peers, then came to the forefront in helping to teach those recruits the basic fundamentals of the game.

“I think the process, although a bit frustrating at times due to a lack of wins, really helped me grow as a person … as a teammate … as a leader,” said Vazquez. “Looking back, I’m proud of how far the Storm King program has come over the last five years.”

With that mission accomplished, Vazquez’s quest to earn a roster spot in the U19 World Championships led her to another: to bring the sport of lacrosse to Puerto Rico and connect with her roots while helping to cultivate the game she loves.

Although she lives in New York, Vazquez was eligible to compete for Puerto Rico because both sets of her grandparents were citizens of the island, and she, as well as her teammates took full advantage of the situation. Like Vazquez, the entire team was comprised of players of Puerto Rican heritage living in the United States and so all journeyed to the island to promote their game.  
  
“We wanted to introduce the game of lacrosse to the island communities that had few recreational opportunities for young girls … especially after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017,” said Vazquez. “We all donated sticks and balls and conducted lacrosse camps for the kids. I think our being there allowed them to forget all the destruction they had endured for a little while and helped put a smile on their faces.”     
 
Puerto Rico was one of nine U19 teams making their first appearance on the international stage this summer, but would have likely received the Rookie of the Year honor had one been handed out. The Islanders surprised everyone by chalking up an 8-0 record in tourney play, as Vazquez came up big, particularly during a game against Haudenosaunee, for which she was named Player of the Match. She earned the honor via a three-point effort off two goals and an assist.

The team’s perfect showing would not be enough to allow it to move on to the tournament’s quarterfinal round, however. This being Puerto Rico’s first year of competition in this tourney, the team was categorized as an associate member of World Lacrosse and only full members are allowed to advance further in the tournament. 

“It was a discouraging way for us to conclude the tournament,” continued Vazquez, “but everyone of us is truly delighted with the way we competed and I’m sure future generations of lacrosse players back in Puerto Rico are extremely proud of what we accomplished and will want to continue what we started.

“After all,” added Vazquez, “the main mission of our organization was to introduce the sport of lacrosse to the youth of Puerto Rico and in having the opportunity to play for this team, I had the opportunity to give back to the island while connecting with the people and the place I am from ...  that’s the most important part as far as I’m concerned.”

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