Top Northwestern women athletes who have gone professional


Daily File Photo/Joshua Hoffman, Daily File Graphic/Meher Yeda

Attacker Lauren Gilbert looks upfield. Gilbert ranked No. 12 overall in the 2022 Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse season.

Lucas Kim, Reporter

The passage of Title IX in 1972 and the subsequent establishment of women’s sports at Northwestern have sparked many careers in professional sports.

However, not only are many professional women’s sports leagues relatively new, but they are also prone to a lack of investment, proper coverage and promotion. Due to this variability, some sports do not currently have a professional women’s league –– something that could change in the future.

But that hasn’t deterred Wildcat alums from excelling on the professional level. 


NU has sent four players to the WNBA in the league’s 26 year history, the most recent being Veronica Burton of the Dallas Wings. 

Burton, picked seventh overall in the 2022 WNBA Draft, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year three seasons in a row and led the nation in steals per game in both her junior and senior seasons. In her first professional season, Burton averaged just 15 minutes per game, but flashed her defensive potential after logging three steals in five separate games.

Competing against Burton is fellow Cat Nia Coffey, who was picked fifth overall in 2017 —  the highest draft pick in NU basketball history. In Evanston, Coffey was named to the All Big Ten First Team for all four seasons, the only NU player to accomplish this feat.

After five years in the league and several injuries, Coffey has carved herself a starting role on the Atlanta Dream, averaging six points and five rebounds per game.


The Cats have also found success in the 10-year-old National Women’s Soccer League with a trio of players drafted in the 2019 NWSL College Draft. This included program stars Kayla Sharples, Marisa Viggiano and Hannah Davison, all of whom helped lead NU to its best four-year stretch in program history from 2015-18.

Sharples and Viggiano are starters for the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash, respectively, while Davison has played professionally overseas in Sweden and Scotland.


The Cats are also well-represented in the new Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League, which takes a unique spin on professional sports: Teams change each week and points are awarded individually instead of by team.

Out of the league’s 57 players, NU alums Lauren Gilbert, Lindsey McKone, Ally Palermo and Jill Girardi all placed in the top 30 individually for the 2022 season.


One of the most accomplished professional women’s athletes is softball star Tammy Williams, who leads NU all time in hits, runs and total bases.

After graduating in 2009, Williams went on to play in the now-defunct National Pro Fastpitch league. Between 2009 and 2015, Williams earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards, won the Cowles Cup Championship twice and helped the USA Softball Women’s National Team win the the World Championship.


While men’s leagues have been around for quite a long time, it took a while for professional women’s sports leagues to be established following the passage of Title IX. Thus, many star athletes in the incipient stages of women’s athletics at NU could not compete in professional leagues like those of today.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Anucha Browne Sanders, dubbed “one of the most accomplished athletes in the school’s history,” and arguably the greatest basketball player in NU history. 

A two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and the nation’s leading scorer in 1985, the WNBA did not exist when Browne Sanders graduated, as the league came along 11 years later.

NU has also produced several pros in individual sports leagues such as the Women’s Tennis Association, which existed since 1973.

Considering several sports do not have professional women’s leagues in the U.S., there are even more athletes who have not had the chance to showcase their talent and effort on a larger scale.

Nevertheless, as women’s sports leagues continue to develop and the University continues to invest in women’s sports, NU alumni will likely continue to perform highly at the pro level.

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Twitter: @lucaskim_15