‘We knew that she was the special one’: Caitlin Clark dominating in her first season with the Iowa women’s basketball team
The freshman point guard quickly became one of the most dominant players in women’s college basketball and has led the Hawkeyes all the way to the Sweet 16.
March 23, 2021
Caitlin Clark grew up in the Hawkeye State, and now wears the Black and Gold for the Iowa women’s basketball program, but her childhood bedroom in West Des Moines is still painted baby blue.
The freshman point guard was a North Carolina fan growing up, and while she’s taken the flurry of posters down, the colors have stayed the same.
“I was super obsessed,” Clark said. “My whole room was decked out in Carolina. I had my mom repaint it baby blue and navy, just because I loved them so much. I got these North Carolina stickers; a huge North Carolina basketball above my bed.”
When Clark was still in elementary school in 2010, Harrison Barnes was dominating on the court for Ames High School, just an hour’s drive from her home. Barnes, the ESPNU No. 1 recruit of the 2010 class, committed to North Carolina. That’s when the fandom started for Clark.
“He was probably one of the best basketball players the state has ever seen on the men’s side,” Clark said.
In high school, both Clark and Barnes played for the All-Iowa Attack — an AAU team based out of Ames. While Clark’s time with the Attack came after Barnes’, she still noticed his impact on the club.
“There was a big display at the original All-Iowa Attack gym that had all his McDonald’s All-American jerseys, and his shoes, his basketballs, his awards,” said Brent Clark, Caitlin’s father. “So, I’m sure that had a bit of an influence over her. He was someone she looked up to and aspired to be similar to him.”
Now, as the 2021 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and the leading scorer for an Iowa team that advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament with an 86-72 victory over Kentucky (a game which Clark scored 35 points in) on Tuesday, Clark has the opportunity to impact prospective players like Barnes — who is now with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings — impacted her.
“I should probably paint my room black and gold now,” Clark said.
Becoming a Hawkeye
Clark quit softball in fifth grade.
Not just to focus on basketball, but because she became too strong on the diamond. It was too easy for her, and too hard for everyone else.
“She got a little frustrated because she was talented, so she had to play up a couple years,” Brent Clark said. “And even then … playing shortstop, the girls would have a hard time catching her throws.”
She instead turned her attention to the All-Iowa Attack, continuing through the club until she graduated from Dowling Catholic High School. Clark also continued to play soccer, collecting All-State honors her first two years on her high school team before she left the sport after her sophomore year.
Clark’s recruitment started before she even stepped foot on a high school court. The summer before her freshman year, her high school coach, Kristin Meyer, was fielding calls from top Division I schools.
Clark’s freshman year of high school was also Meyer’s first year at Dowling Catholic. It was an interesting one for Meyer.
Per NCAA recruiting protocols, schools are not allowed to contact a player or their family directly until their junior year of high school. So, the first two years of Meyer’s coaching career were filled with calls about her standout point guard.
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“I had never coached such a high-profile player before,” Meyer said. “I started getting phone calls, like, in August before her freshman year, from some top-10 ranked teams, so that was just a little bit eye-opening for me. Especially her freshman and sophomore years, it was non-stop.”
But Clark’s parents wanted their daughter to have as normal of a childhood as she could and regulated her recruitment as much as possible.
“My wife and I just thought, obviously you can’t put this type of burden on a young girl,” Brent Clark said. “So, I, myself, talked to a lot of coaches over the course of time. I don’t think it was until Caitlin’s sophomore year that she actually started having many direct conversations on the telephone or in-person with coaching staffs.”
Some prospects have that one school that is their end-all, be-all — if they got an offer from that school, there’s no discussion on if they’re going to go. That wasn’t the case for Clark.
In a time where many elite high school athletes commit to a school in their sophomore year, the 6-foot point guard waited as long as she could, announcing her commitment to Iowa in November 2019, right before the beginning of her senior season at Dowling Catholic.
“I had never quite understood the rationale of committing as a freshman, or even as a sophomore,” Brent Clark said. “…We really encouraged her to keep her options open and visit other schools that are not in the Midwest.”
The Clark family visited schools all around the country — on the West Coast, they toured Oregon and Oregon State, in the south, the Universities of Texas and Florida. The east coast featured Duke basketball, and in the Midwest, Clark had a flurry of options — including the in-state trio of Iowa, Iowa State, and Drake, along with Notre Dame and Creighton.
Visiting schools close and far put everything in perspective.
“We tried to give her a sense of what it would be like, if you live in the south, the west coast, or somewhere out east,” Brent Clark said. “You can’t get in a car, and we can’t get in a car and come see you on the weekend either.”
While Meyer had a hand in helping Clark choose her future school, the coach wanted to make sure that Clark made the decision on her own.
“We had conversations frequently, especially when she was narrowing it down from all schools to top-10, and then she narrowed it down to top-three,” Meyer said. “But when talking with athletes I try to ask more questions than give feedback. So, after she went on a college visit somewhere, I’d just ask her ‘What did you like? What did you not like?’ Just to be able to give her a chance to talk through some of her thoughts.”
For the Iowa recruiting staff, it meant waiting the long game.
“We knew that she was the special one,” Iowa associate head coach and director of recruiting Jan Jensen said. “We knew that everyone was going to be coming to our state and wanting her, and we knew we had to get through our own state too, with the great universities [Iowa State and Drake] here.
“I think we always understood that it was a marathon. And it ended up being the week of signing … A lot of kids decide by their sophomore year now, but with Caitlin you could just feel how their approach was — they weren’t in a hurry, and we just knew that we were going to have to withstand a whole lot.”
With offers from top schools like Oregon, Duke, and Notre Dame — who was the defending NCAA champion when she decided on a school — Clark, the nation’s No. 4 recruit, decided to stay in her home state, a program that has never seen a national title and had not been to the Final Four since the 1992-93 season.
“I think one of the biggest things for me [choosing Iowa] was that it was so close to home,” Clark said. “It’s an hour-and-45-minute drive, so not too far and not too close … Iowa State is a little closer, maybe too close. And just the ability to come in and make an impact right away with [former Iowa point guard] Kathleen [Doyle] graduating and going to the WNBA I thought I could step into that point guard role and earn that.
“I wanted to go to a program where I could take them back to the Final Four, do something special that maybe hasn’t been done in a while.”
Jensen said, in recruiting, the Hawkeyes used their lack of championships as the “difference maker” for Clark, and ultimately treated her like any other recruit.
“We weren’t going to be able to say what Connecticut and Notre Dame and the Stanfords were going to sell,” Jensen said. “We did it the same that we’ve done with every kid we’ve ever recruited. It’s really ‘This is who we are, this is what we believe in.’ A team culture, positive, everybody matters, we care genuinely about who we are as people first, and players second. The difference that we were from the Stanfords and the Notre Dames is that this was a different challenge, and we just let that be known.”
Confidence is key
It’s Dec. 9, 2020, and the fourth quarter of the annual Cy-Hawk matchup between Iowa and Iowa State women’s basketball is in progress. The Hawkeyes are down, 80-79, with just 22 seconds left in the game.
Enter Caitlin Clark.
In just her fourth game as a Hawkeye, Clark hurled a step-back 3-point shot from four feet behind the men’s 3-point line to sink the final, game-winning shot for Iowa to overtake Iowa State, 82-80, for the fifth year in a row.
Good morning. It’s a Hawkeye State.
That is all.
— Iowa Women’s BBall (@IowaWBB) December 10, 2020
“If you’re going to shoot it, you better be confident,” Clark said. “That’s kind of what I tell myself — honestly, I like shooting those shots. Whenever I shoot it, I think it’s going in unless it’s really off. But when it goes in, I get pretty excited. I may not show it, but it feels good, for sure.”
Throughout the rest of the season, no game was truly complete without a signature Clark, exceedingly-long, 3-point shot.
Clark hit multiple 3-point shots from the Nebraska logo on the way to a record-breaking 39 points at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln on Feb. 11. Her career-high night helped the Hawkeyes pick up an 88-81 win over the Cornhuskers.
Her almost-immediate comfort on the court can be credited to her teammates, who she said made her feel at home before she even stepped on campus.
“I think that’s kind of one thing that the Iowa program really prides itself on, is our culture and our family we have here,” Clark said. “I remember all the girls reaching out to me while we were still at home … It’s truly a family and we all care about each other and I think that’s what makes it so great.”
Clark needed to make an immediate impact in order to replace 2020 Big Ten Player of the Year Kathleen Doyle at the point guard position. To her teammates, she’s done it perfectly.
“We definitely needed a point guard and a leader to step up right away after Doyle had left,” Clark’s teammate, forward McKenna Warnock said. “And I think she’s done a great job of that … I think we all, right off the bat, realized how good she was. I think we all just embraced her and trusted in her. And she trusts us.”
Shots from the Tigerhawk logo on Mediacom Court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena became normal for Clark, whether her coaches liked it or not.
“She decides [to take those shots] on her own most of the time,” head coach Lisa Bluder said. “I’m willing to have her do that at times, not all the time, but at times, because she can do it. I mean, she’s excellent at it, so why not, right?”
But when Clark is having a hot night, the court is her playground.
“When she’s in rhythm, she’s unbelievable,” Bluder said.
And Clark is no stranger to big stages — even before she came to Iowa City, Clark played on a U16 and U19 Team USA women’s basketball team, winning international gold medals both times.
“She thrives in big moments, on big stages,” Meyer said.
A record-breaking freshman year
Through the end of just her first season on the team, Clark has broken more records and gathered more awards than she can count.
After winning 13 of the 16 Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards on the season, Clark was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. She also led the league in women’s basketball with five Player of the Week honors but was beaten out by Michigan’s junior forward Naz Hillmon for the Player of the Year award.
But the awards don’t stop in the Big Ten. Clark, the nation’s leader in points and assists this season, was also a four-time U.S. Basketball Writers Association national freshman of the week. She’s been named to the Naismith late-season watch list, one of two freshmen out of 11 players up for the prestigious Naismith Player of the Year award.
After being left off the original Nancy Lieberman top-25 list, an award given to the best women’s basketball point guard in the country, Clark made her way into the top 10 on Feb. 1. Clark and UConn point guard Paige Bueckers are the only freshmen on the list.
Clark has broken many freshman records in the Iowa women’s basketball program.
In the Hawkeyes’ 111-93 loss to Maryland on Feb. 25, Clark put up 32 points to surpass the freshman scoring record, which former Hawkeye Jamie Printy set in the 2009-10 season with 501 points.
But, during the season, Clark can’t keep up with the accolades, and focuses instead on the bigger picture.
“I don’t really know about breaking records or whatnot,” Clark said. “I obviously don’t keep track of anything like that … Overall I’m just focused on winning, and I think that’s just my focus going into every game. I’m not like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to score 30 points.’”
In Iowa’s last regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, an 83-75 win over Nebraska on March 6, Clark eclipsed the 600-point mark — the first time in Iowa women’s basketball history that a freshman dropped 600 points in a season.
She’s the fifth Hawkeye to achieve that mark in a season, and joins the likes of Megan Gustafson, who reached it in the 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 seasons. Gustafson currently holds the Iowa scoring record with 2,804 points during her career, and Clark is well on her way to breaking that record.
And Clark is only going to get better.
“I still have four years to go,” Clark said. “So, I think there’s a lot of things that can still happen. I think we’re only at the beginning, and there’s so much room for me to improve, for this team to improve, and I think even better and better is coming.”
Clark holds the same jersey number, 22, as Kathleen Doyle. Doyle, who graduated in 2020, was drafted 14th overall by the Indiana Fever in the 2020 WNBA draft.
As Clark follows in Doyle’s footsteps through Carver-Hawkeye Arena, she has WNBA aspirations of her own.
“That’s definitely my goal, for sure,” Clark said. “I think the WNBA will only get better and better before I leave, and hopefully I’ll get drafted to play there. That’s my goal, but there’s so much room for me to improve before I get there, and obviously a lot of things for me to accomplish here at Iowa as well.”
After her first year away from home, her parents have seen not only how she’s grown as a basketball player, but as a newly-independent adult.
“They had to report in June, and Caitlin was excited to go and meet new people, but you’re more or less on lockdown from the moment you’ve gotten there [because of COVID-19],” Brent Clark said. “I think her maturity level has been noticeable, I think her discipline, and I think her commitment to following the rules and the regulations … have been remarkable.”
Clark’s professional potential was evident before she joined the Hawkeyes.
“I think just her floor vision … is already at an elite level that a lot of other players don’t quite have that timing, vision, or passing ability,” Meyer said. “I think she’s tall enough for a guard to be able to hold her own, and her shooting ability will only get better. So, if that’s something she chooses to do, and I hope she does after her career at Iowa … She loves the game so much that I think it would be hard for her to not play if she wanted to, and I think it’s a good challenge for her.”
Even if she doesn’t go into professional basketball, Clark will face a flurry of options after her time at Iowa — she could go into coaching, or even sports broadcasting.
“Quite frankly, I could see her eventually, when her playing career ends, coaching,” Brent Clark said. “Coaching would be a really great avenue for her. She understands the game, her IQ is so high that I think that would suit her well … maybe it’s broadcasting in sports, things like that. I think the opportunities for women just continue to expand on a yearly basis, and the sky’s the limit.”
Like Gustafson and men’s basketball center Luka Garza, Clark could see her No. 22 retired at the end of her time in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Even if her number is retired, Clark said it wouldn’t go without recognizing the efforts of those who wore the number before her — Doyle and Samantha Logic, who competed for the Hawkeyes from 2011-15, recording six career triple-doubles.
But before Clark looks too far into the rafters, she has one goal in mind.
“First of all,” Clark said, “I hope there’s a Final Four banner hanging before my jersey.”