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Iowa star Caitlin Clark's journey to Final Four began before she stepped foot in Iowa City

When Clark committed to the Hawkeyes, she promised she'd help with a Final Four run

By John Bohnenkamp 

Student sections can be notoriously silly when it comes to taunting opposing players who are just too good. 

It didn’t take long Sunday night, as Caitlin Clark was leading Iowa to its first appearance in the NCAA women’s tournament Final Four in 30 years, for a video to show up on Twitter of Southeast Polk’s student section taunting Clark with a chant of “Overrated” during a game in her senior year at Dowling High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

All Clark did, of course, was score 42 points that night. It was during that season that Clark had committed to Iowa and promised coach Lisa Bluder that she would help get them to the Final Four.

A high school dream becoming reality is just one part of Clark’s journey. 

Three years into her career with the Hawkeyes, Clark is one of the nation’s best players. She has the Hawkeyes in Dallas with a chance to win a national title, she earned the Naismith Trophy as the top women’s player in the country on Wednesday, and she’s probably got a few more of those awards coming.

Clark’s impact can be seen in her numbers — 984 points, 311 assists, 262 rebounds, 127 3-pointers, 56 steals and 20 blocks in leading the Hawkeyes to a historic season. She is the first Division I women’s basketball player to have more than 900 points and 300 assists in the same season. Her 984 points are second most in a single season in Big Ten history, just behind the 1,001 scored by former Iowa center Megan Gustafson in 2019.

But her impact is much deeper. She is a fan favorite, must-see TV when the Hawkeyes are on — 2.5 million viewers watched Sunday’s win over Louisville in a regional final — and popular with the autograph seekers after every game.

“What has been surprising to me is when we go on the road and when I see in Maryland girls with signs, ‘I'm from Massachusetts and I came here to see you play,’ largely for Caitlin,” Bluder said. “We were at Nebraska, and someone has a sign, ‘I'm your biggest fan in North Dakota.’ People travel miles to see this team and to see Caitlin play.”

Iowa’s first-round and second-round NCAA tournament games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City were sellouts, matching last year’s attendance total which were the highest-ranked sessions outside of the Final Four in the tournament.

“I think it just shows the excitement in our community about women's basketball, and that's the excitement that it could be like that all around the country,” Clark said. “And it should be like that because there are a lot of amazing women's basketball teams at the college and pro level.

“But one of the reasons I came here is the support for this team and this program that Coach Bluder has built here is unreal. So, you never take for granted getting to run out on to a court with 15,000 people screaming for you.”

Clark plays with a deep passion for the game, but she is also embracing the fun that goes with the attention.

“Yeah, I think that's when I'm playing my best basketball is when I'm playing, when I'm having the most fun out of anybody on court,” Clark said after Sunday’s win. “I love to play this game. I've dreamed of this moment since I was a little girl. I've always wanted to take a team to the Final Four and be in these moments and have confetti fall down on me.

“But I play this game because I love it, and it brings joy to me, and it brings a lot of joy to other people because our team is so fun to watch. I don't play it to hoist a trophy, whether it's individually or with my team. That just comes with the joy and the passion that we play for and how much fun we have with one another. So, yeah, I think it's just who I am. At the end of the day, I'm a fun person off the court, too. Maybe a little too goofy at times. But, you know, I think that's, you know, what makes basketball so fun for me.”

When Clark committed to the Hawkeyes in high school, she made a promise to Bluder that she would take Iowa to the Final Four.

“It takes one person to dream it, right?” Bluder said. “And if you can get other people to follow in line, and that's what this team has done is -- but Caitlin was the one, she was the one that said, ‘We’re going to the Final Four.’ And she kept saying it in the paper. And I kept saying, I was thinking, ‘Quit doing that, man.’ You know, so -- I learned a long time ago not to always give your goals away to people. Because they can, there's a lot of people that want to tear 'em down. She wasn't afraid of that goal. She wasn't afraid of putting it out there.”

Added Clark: 

“I mean, about the only people that believed were me and her when I first committed to her, and it was getting the locker room to believe, and then everybody in the locker room believed and the rest is kind of history. But a lot of people told me it would never happen when I came to the University of Iowa. But she believed in me and that was really all that mattered. And we made our locker room believe, and when you dream and work really hard, a lot of really cool things can happen.”