November 23, 2020 

‘High school is behind me now’: Iowa’s freshmen adjust to the college game

A reflection on growth and a commitment to keep improving

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Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark shoots the ball during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Photo: Iowa Women’s Basketball via Twitter)

When ESPN determined that Iowa women’s basketball’s 2020 recruiting class had broken into the top 20 nationally, it wasn’t hard to see why. The addition of five-star recruit Caitlin Clark from a couple of hours west boosted the overall look of the group of four freshmen.

They were all fine players in their own rights, obviously, but with the country’s No. 2 point guard at the Hawkeyes’ disposal, the prospect of replacing the 2020 Big Ten Player of the Year Kathleen Doyle seemed like it might be a much smoother transition.

Still, all four Hawkeye freshmen — Clark, Sharon Goodman, Shateah Wetering, and Lauren Jensen — have something in common. Many things, in fact, that overshadow their differences were made readily apparent when they signed with the team.

Most important for now is that none of them have played a college game before. Yet all of them have a unique place on the team, a reason they were hand-picked to come to campus.

Clark, of course, is the bellwether. Her pedigree has been apparent for some time, between landing on USA Basketball teams at the U16 and U19 levels and leading Dowling Catholic High School to two state tournaments. She’s a lengthy guard, an unselfish passer, and can shoot from anywhere.

“Caitlin is coming here expecting to contribute right away, and she will be contributing right away,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “We’re excited to have that next point guard. We’ve had so many great point guards come through our system, and excited about this one.”

But Clark is also, well, a freshman. And like her three counterparts on the Hawkeyes, that comes with at least some uncertainty, a reality check when transitioning from high school to Big Ten basketball.

“High school is behind me now,” Clark told Iowa media last week. “[My previous] accolades don’t really matter anymore and I have a lot to prove on the college level. … But I think the competitive side of me — if you’ve ever watched me, you know I’m super, super competitive. And I think that’s what drives me, makes me want to get better every single day.”

That, at least, is a commonality among all the freshmen: the drive to get better, the competitiveness. Bluder said one of the main selling points as she recruited Clark was getting Iowa back to the Final Four, something it’s done just once, in 1993. The Hawkeyes were one game away in 2019 before falling to Baylor in the Elite Eight.

With so many key parts of that 2018-19 team gone — the entire starting lineup, for one — this 2020-21 squad is a young Iowa team. And with that youth comes inexperience, of course, but also indomitable yearning for improvement.

For Jensen, that inspiration comes from team captains Zion Sanders, Kate Martin, and Alexis Sevillian.

“[Zion’s] been awesome,” she said. “She’s great at reading people and just kind of knowing what’s going on, and she’s great at just picking me up and the others whenever we’re down. And like all the other captains, super encouraging and positive.”

Jensen and Clark both have ties to UConn’s Paige Bueckers, 2020’s top recruit and the consensus high school player of the year. While Clark and Bueckers were both top-five prospects, the former coming in second to the latter in ESPN’s national point guard rankings, Jensen was a finalist for Miss Minnesota Basketball — an award that Bueckers won.

“Not bad to be a finalist to the No. 1 player in America,” Bluder said.

Speaking of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the greats, Jensen broke Minnesota Lynx guard Rachel Banham’s Lakeville North High School career record for 3-pointers. She’ll be relied upon for that skill in particular after Makenzie Meyer graduated in the spring. But before she can shoot a three in a game, she recognizes the need to learn the moves that can put her into that position.

“Probably the biggest adjustment for me has been learning the offense and just kind of getting a feel for everyone on the team, and what type of styles they like, and just building that chemistry and just getting integrated into the system,” Jensen said.

Wetering, like Jensen, is also finding her way in a new system, and even in a new position. In high school, she said, she played just about everywhere her team needed her. Montezuma High School, about an hour from Iowa City, enrolls less than 150 students, highlighting the need for skilled yet versatile players.

Now, Wetering’s 6’0 frame helps her slot perfectly into the power forward rotation with sophomore McKenna Warnock and junior Logan Cook. Warnock, in particular, earned three starts as a freshman, slotting in where needed behind now-graduated Amanda Ollinger and, twice, for junior Monika Czinano.

“I’m adjusting to what my team needs and they need me as a power forward like I originally was,” Wetering said. “It’s really great to rotate with Logan and McKenna and I’m really excited for the season.”

While Jensen and Wetering strive to make a name for themselves in a rotation of two or three players, Goodman’s path to playing time is more distinguished, and as of late, more historic. After a 2019-20 season where Bluder said the team struggled without a true backup for center Czinano, Goodman’s identical height and shooting accuracy gives her a perfect opportunity to develop in the same way that Czinano did under Iowa great Megan Gustafson.

It’s a prospect that excites Goodman perhaps as much as it does Bluder, who immediately likened her skill to Czinano’s at a recent presser.

“That kind of humbles you a little bit. It was exciting for me to hear,” Goodman said. “But I’m here to help the team and to make her better and push the team. I mean, if I’m able to make Monika better, I mean, that’s an accomplishment for me too. Because as great as she is, to be able to push her every day in practice and to make her better, that’s exciting for me.”

One of the biggest changes for Goodman transitioning to college was the idea of playing against players her own size. At 6’3, players her height were hard to come by at 400-student Crestwood High School, which competes in Iowa’s 3A division. She told media that she’d only see players her size in big games — and rarely were they taller than her.

Now, practicing every day against Czinano, also 6’3, gives Goodman both a standard to live up to and an equal force to practice against.

“I think [Czinano and I] have a great relationship already,” Goodman said. “And, I mean, we go at it in practice, but it’s also fun. And it’s a whole new experience for me to be able to compete against people my size every day in practice.”

The Iowa women’s basketball team comes together during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Photo: Iowa Women’s Basketball via Twitter)

Post players at Iowa, Goodman acknowledged, have become the stuff of legends since Gustafson set the standard in her junior and senior years. While many worried about the potential drop-off down low after she graduated, Czinano was more than willing to pick up where Gustafson left off, finishing second in the country in field goal percentage as a sophomore, her first year as a starter.

This prestige, and the development that players receive under associate head coach Jan Jensen, was a big draw for Goodman in choosing Iowa.

“They use the post, they value the post, so that was a big thing for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where they kind of would want to change, but they’re wanting to work with what me and Monika already do, trying to strengthen us and use us as a vital part of the offense, too.”

Which brings us back to Clark, the brand-new orchestrator of the offense, and someone expected to contribute right away. In high school, Clark was both a pinpoint passer and a big scorer, averaging over 30 points per game during her junior and senior seasons. With this in mind, though, Bluder doesn’t necessarily need Clark to be everything she was in high school. The Hawkeyes are a balanced, high-level team, Bluder explained — Clark isn’t going to reach her high school numbers, and more importantly, she’s not expected to.

But that still leaves the question of what is expected of Clark in a season driven by so much youth. Her leadership, however undeveloped for the college game, is a given. A starting role is in sight.

Clark does get frustrated, of course — she’s a freshman who comes with a degree of star power but has to balance the game she’s gotten used to with the team she’s now tasked with leading. But she said the captains have helped her work through that, and that overall, she feels welcome — a part of the team. Adaptation is just another natural thing she’s dealt with before.

“I think my experience with USA Basketball and playing for a club team and playing for high school, I mean, all three of those have been really different and you have to learn how to adjust,” she said. “And I think that’s no different than being here. You have to learn how to adjust, learn how to read your teammates, and how they’re going to read you. So I think it’s been an adjustment, but it’s been going pretty well.”

Bluder agreed, calling Clark incredibly coachable and, importantly, humble, not letting her accolades dictate her output. She also described a moment from practice that displayed how much Clark has adjusted from being a go-to scorer to the highlight-reel passer that Iowa needs.

“We have had so many ‘oh, wow’ moments in practice already, highlight-type passes,” Bluder said. “We had one today, like, put that in the highlight film already, because it was so unbelievable.

“I think sometimes people overlook how good of a passer she is just because she’s such a tremendous scorer.”

Developing Clark’s leadership at the Division I level will take time. Bluder’s not worried about that — the captains are doing a tremendous job already, she said. But despite her admitted (and expected) anxiety going into her first game Wednesday night against Northern Iowa, Clark said her goals for herself remain realistic but high.

And they definitely center the team.

“More than anything, I just want the team to have success and do well,” she said. “And I think we have all the pieces. I think a lot of people don’t think we’ll be as good as Iowa women’s basketball has been in the past few years, so I think we have a lot to prove wrong. And that’s almost better, sometimes, being the underdog. So I’m just really excited to get out there and play. And I think everybody on this team has the same goal in mind.”

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