In early June, residents of Evanston, Ill., Northwestern fans sporting the purple and white and softball enthusiasts worldwide were glued to their TV screens and streaming devices. With seven of eight teams having clinched a bid to the 2022 Women’s College World Series, the last spot was to be determined by a winner-take-all game three between No. 9 Northwestern and No. 8 Arizona State.
Down 5-0 in the third inning, the Wildcats stormed back, scoring eight straight runs. By the time sophomore Hannah Cady squeezed a pop-up for the final out of the game, NU had punched its ticket to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2007, sending its players and sage coaches into euphoria around the diamond.
For program legend Lisa Ishikawa Sliwa, Northwestern’s victory over a west-coast foe held extra historical significance.
“I think they [Northwestern softball] have done a tremendous job with raising the talent level in the Midwest,” Sliwa said. “In the past, it’s been dominated by the Sun Belt and California, but the Midwest has held its own.”
The success of the Wildcats’ softball team did far more than assert the capabilities of teams around the Great Lakes. In fact, the squad’s trip to Oklahoma City was one of countless tremendous accomplishments by Northwestern’s women’s sports teams — programs that continue to highlight a following for women’s sports in general.
Peruse the Northwestern softball record books, and it’s hard not to notice Sliwa’s maiden name, Ishikawa, straight away. Commanding the circle from 1984 to 1987, Sliwa holds career team records in earned run average, innings pitched, strikeouts, shutouts and wins; the three-time All-American threw 14 no-hitters and one perfect game in four years.
However, Sliwa scarcely thinks about her pitching accomplishments in her everyday life. She hadn’t kept tabs on her records until she was reminded of them in a speech from her daughter during an induction into her league’s American Softball Association Hall of Fame.
“I was really pretty surprised that some of them were still there,” Sliwa said with a chuckle. “When life takes you with raising kids and stuff, you kind of lose track of many of those things.”
Regardless of life stage or years of their playing careers, some of the most prolific female athletes in Northwestern history, including women’s basketball career, single-season and single-game points leader Anucha Browne, exude a similar humility.
“I think the reality is that the game has come really far. It’s about time for somebody to break those records,” Browne said.
Though Northwestern legends may not check their own accolades much, they certainly frequent box scores of the teams for which they once captained or carried the freight.
“Following Northwestern is a part of my daily life, almost,” said Kristen Kjellman Marshall, a Wildcat lacrosse alum and member of Northwestern’s 2012 Hall of Fame class. “I feel like once you’re part of the program, you’re kind of ingrained in it forever.”
Though she last suited up for the ‘Cats in 2007, Marshall maintains a close relationship with head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, under whom Marshall won three national championships. In fact, Marshall supported Amonte Hiller in person on June 3 as the coach won a Tewaaraton Legends Award, an honor earned by outstanding athletes whose time playing lacrosse in college preceded 2001 when the Tewaarton Award was first given. Marshall speaks highly of her connections to past and former Wildcats.
“There’s an amazing alumni base,” she said. “As a lot of these players have come through, I’ve been able to form friendships and support them along the way.”
Marshall followed Northwestern throughout its 2022 season as the ‘Cats made a third straight NCAA Final Four appearance behind stars Lauren Gilbert, Jill Girardi and Ally Palermo, all of whom were drafted to the professional Athletes Unlimited lacrosse league in late May.
“They’re incredibly talented athletes and players and have represented Northwestern so well these past several years,” Marshall said. “I think [they] will have amazing success in the league. It will make us alums proud as we watch them at the next level.”
In 2011, Amy Jaeschke Scudder became the first NU women’s basketball player to ever be drafted into the WNBA, picked 27th overall by the Chicago Sky. While playing for the Sky, the program leader in all-time blocked shots facilitated an internship for fellow Northwestern star Nia Coffey, who would end up as the fourth overall pick just six years later.
Support from past to current players is one of the hallmarks of NU’s women’s programs. While cheering can come from anywhere, former players are not shy in making trips to cheer on the ‘Cats.
Northwestern softball’s postseason play impressed fans around the globe, but its enduring support from alumni may have been even more noteworthy. As the ‘Cats took the field in OKC, former NU All-Americans Tammy Williams, Garland Cooper and Eileen Canney were beside the Northwestern dugout cheering on the next generation of Women’s College World Series stars hailing from Evanston.
The @NUSBcats softball sisterhood is something special. More than 3 dozen former players in the stands cheering for 2022 team. So much love for the purple people. #beremarkable pic.twitter.com/CUIypJH6ag— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) June 4, 2022
A family connected by purple hearts is far from the only element linking legendary female athletes with their teams. Another common sentiment is the feeling of pride about how Northwestern teams have helped usher in a golden era for women’s sports.
When Scudder first arrived in Evanston in 2007, the Wildcats had not had a winning season in 10 years. After the hire of current head coach Joe McKeown in June 2008, the tide turned by the end of Scudder’s career; in 2009-10, NU went 18-15 and made the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), winning two games.
Despite her role in paving the way for long-term success, Scudder still basks in the achievements made upon her leave — after she graduated, Northwestern eventually claimed its first Big Ten regular-season title in 2020 and has played in two NCAA Tournaments — 2015 and 2021.
“Now, seeing the girls accomplishing way more and taking it way further than I ever was able to, [it’s] so fun to watch and reflect back on,” Scudder said.
McKeown’s squad maintained such success this past season as well, going 17-12 to post its fourth straight campaign with a winning record. Additionally, the team saw guard Veronica Burton selected seventh overall in the 2022 WNBA Draft, joining Coffey in prestigious territory.
“The players today just [have] such smarts and experience; they’re ready, they’re skilled,” Browne said. “That really speaks to the growth, and a lot of that is as a result of Title IX.”
Why have female athletes at Northwestern reached new heights, especially in recent years? Such greats cite the school’s investment in female athletes as a focal point.
“I look at the field and I look at the facilities and think that Northwestern has just done a really good job with providing for the female athletes, at least since my day,” Sliwa said.
“The support, from a resource standpoint, I think is unparalleled to many of the other women’s programs in the country,” Marshall said.
Having served as the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball championships from 2012 to 2017, Browne notes the progress she has witnessed in Northwestern Athletics over the last 40 years. In fact, Browne’s time in Evanston was so influential that it led her daughter, Spring Sanders, down a similar path — one in which she joined Amonte Hiller’s lacrosse team in 2013 and served as captain in 2016.
“I’ll always cherish the time I had there,” Browne said. “Because of [Spring’s] experience and her lessons and leadership that she learned on the lacrosse field, she’s now doing extremely well. The legacy continues.”
Even though greater equality has been achieved, the tireless journey to reach the present day has not been lost on female alumni.
Scudder recalls a conversation with a peer only a few years older about how women’s basketball players in her time had distinct roles on offense or defense because it was not believed they could play both ends of the floor. Similarly, while in attendance at Sharon J. Drysdale Field for the Evanston Softball Regional in late May, Sliwa ran into a former teammate. The two reminisced about how starkly the team’s practice areas and regimens had improved.
“‘Remember when we used to have to walk the field after football games because we had to pick up the bottle tops?’” Sliwa recalls sharing.
Although Northwestern’s women’s teams have risen to the forefront in terms of consistent success and prominence, it has not always been this way. The four women all share the belief that their careers, as well as the holistic progress of women’s sports, are due to the enactment of Title IX in 1972.
“Title IX has impacted my career suite exponentially,” Browne said. “It’s really helped me develop a sense of self and a sense of courage, willingness to stand up to things, even if you’re standing alone. That doesn’t come easily to a lot of people.”
After 11 years as a program manager at IBM, Browne was hired by the New York Knicks as a marketing executive, eventually moving to senior vice president of marketing and business operations. The traits mentioned above became especially useful to Browne when she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Knicks and other parties in 2006. Browne notes “protections” in Title IX for college athletes but stresses the need for diligence among universities.
“College campuses need to continue to take those issues seriously and need to do proper investigations with that,” Browne said. “It’s really important that due process takes place and that people aren’t vilified before the facts are made available.”
In broader society, Browne feels nationally recognized sexual assault cases help bring to light the need for investigations to be carried out. Ultimately, though, she feels taking legitimate action supersedes changes in discourse.
“The accountability piece is the only way that you start to see progress in those areas,” Browne said.
With the dawn of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the legislation may not feel recent in the eyes of players. To former athletes like Marshall, however, its legacy is unforgettable.
“Even though it seems like it was so long ago, it still is so important for women’s sports,” Marshall said. “It truly paved the way for women in sports and moving towards equality and that ability to play at the highest level.
“I’m grateful for everyone who paved the way, [like] Billie Jean King and other people. [They] came in and made it possible for us not to have to think about those inequalities and come in just compete and do what we love.”
Professional female sports leagues like the WNBA have continued to grow in popularity, with the league’s 2021 regular-season viewership augmenting 49% and Finals viewership increasing 23% from the year before, per ESPN Press Room. Even then, Scudder feels the league can continue to boost its fandom to inspire future players.
“That gives girls an outlet or people to look up to, and I think that’s really important for them to have those types of role models,” Scudder said. “The more that we can support the women and have them as examples, I think is super important.”
Browne enjoys that the WNBA “respects women for who they are,” yet believes that the league needs to better market its star players.
“What we see at times as women leave their collegiate athletic programs, whether it’s UConn or Northwestern, they go to the WNBA, and we barely hear about them,” Browne said. “There’s much to be said about if you’re going to invest in a league, it has to come with the commitment to invest in advertising and awareness-raising that the league needs.”
While Title IX has helped to generate more parity among athletics and genders, Browne feels that remaining work needs to be done to address disparities among demographic groups.
“We have to force our government officials to provide equitable funding in those communities,” Browne said. “When we think about the long term, the leveling of the playing field of opportunity at the high school level is going to have a profound impact on the pipeline coming into the collegiate space.”
Further, Browne wants to see more women coaching women’s sports. Northwestern’s women’s basketball, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and women’s fencing are all coached by men, something Browne feels should be reconsidered in future hiring processes.
“Women need to see women in order to aspire to be in those positions,” Browne emphasized. “There’s no reason why a woman should not be considered in positions on the operations side, on the coaching side, if men are.”
Embedded in the profound purple pride that female athletes inducted into the Northwestern Hall of Fame share is a deeper appreciation of not only their playing careers but also of NU spearheading change.
“Women are getting their due,” Sliwa said. “They are tremendous athletes. I know Northwestern’s women’s programs have been very successful in the past as well as current. I am proud of them for keeping that tradition alive.”