Hawkeye women playing for Harper in Sweet 16

The Iowa women’s basketball team is playing for something greater than themselves in this weekend’s Sweet 16 matchup against NC State.


Lily Anne Smith

Harper Stribe cuts down a piece of net with the support of Iowa guard Kathleen Doyle after the Iowa/Mizzou NCAA Tournament second round women’s basketball game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, March 24, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Tigers, 68-52.

Jordan Zuniga, Sports Reporter

There is a member of the Iowa women’s basketball team you may not be familiar with.

She’s not on the official roster, and she may be just 7 years old, but she’s as much a part of the Hawkeye squad team as Megan Gustafson. She even cut herself a piece of the net after Iowa’s second-round win over Missouri in the NCAA Tournament on March 24.

Her name is Harper Stribe, a survivor of embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma cancer.

Gustafson, Lexi Sevillian, and Tania Davis went to the Ronald McDonald House two summers ago during Harper’s first six weeks of radiation therapy. There was an immediate bond.


“Those were some long, tough days for Harper and our family,” said Nolan Stribe, Harper’s father, in an email. “So when they came over to play with her, chat, and shoot some baskets, it definitely lifted her spirits and kept her mind off her treatment routine.”

Harper has now become one of Iowa women’s basketball’s biggest fans and has even become an adopted member of the team.

Earlier this season, assistant coach Raina Harmon arranged a way for Harper to have her own locker, which she has filled with drawings of the team.

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While she won’t make the trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the Hawkeyes’ Sweet 16 matchup against NC State, she will most definitely be cheering Iowa on. A video of pregame encouragement could also be in the offing for the Hawkeyes.

“She’s always on our minds,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “[Harper] sends us clips of her before games of her getting ready to watch the game and how she’s cheering us on.”

As Harper has cheered on the Iowa women, they have likewise encouraged Harper.

“The ladies have been wonderful for Harper,” Stribe said in an email. “She gets to hang out with the coolest group of young ladies that represent the University of Iowa so well. It has been a wonderful experience for Harper.”

Iowa continued to visit Harper in the hospital all the way up until her last bout of radiation therapy on April 16, 2018.

Harper was pronounced cancer-free less than a month later.

It’s not lost on the Hawkeyes how prodigious Harper’s feat of beating cancer was, and it served as motivation.

“Harper’s one of our ‘whys,’ ” Gustafson said. “Why we play, why we fight every single day is we just want to help her out. She’s been such a strong fighter. We want to support her. It’s been amazing to have her on this journey.”

That is especially true for Davis, who had to wrestle though back-to-back ACL injuries in order to play her senior season. She has averaged 10.4 points per game with 4.5 assists.

“Being in a similar situation with battling injuries constantly, for me, I feel like if Harper doesn’t have any type of excuse to cancer, I should never have an excuse for two ACL injuries,” she said. “We want to play for Harper, and we want to play for all the other kids in Iowa and around the nation who won’t get to play Division-1 college basketball.”

Davis is not alone in drawing inspiration from Harper. Senior Hannah Stewart has made sure she is constantly reminded of Harper.

“On my playbook binder I have Harper’s picture on it,” Stewart said. “I think she’s just such an inspiration. Just to know what she’s been through as a little kid fighting through [cancer] just makes playing a basketball game kind of silly. It gives me and the rest of our team just a little extra motivation to know if she can [beat cancer], we can go play our hearts out on the basketball floor.”

Even with Harper’s captivating story of beating cancer, her magnetic alacrity seems to garner the most admiration from the Hawkeyes.

“Having that positive mentality, that positive attitude and always wearing a smile on my face like Harper does is something I try to do,” Davis said. “It’s something that I hope I’m good at.”

Stewart agrees.

“[She taught me] to have joy,” she said. “Just to enjoy every moment and that we really have nothing to complain about, whether it’s an early workout or a hard life or whatever. [Harper has] really taught us what it means to be together and have fun and do what you love.”