Last year the Iowa Hawkeye surprised most and became an unexpected national presence in women’s college basketball. They won the Big Ten regular season championship and the Big Ten Tournament before enduring a heartbreaking loss to Creighton on their home court during the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After a summer of recovery, the Hawkeyes are coming into this season with a renewed sense of purpose buoyed by the fact that they are ranked No. 4 in the national preseason rankings and No. 1 in the preseason Big Ten rankings.
Head coach Lisa Bluder is not only entering her 23rd season at Iowa, but she is also rejoined by the core group of players from last year. A group that includes one of the most dynamic duos in all of college basketball.
That includes their dynamite scorer and all-around talent Caitlin Clark, who is entering her junior year and who has in just two years stacked up so much hardware. Those accolades include Big Ten Player of the Year, the Nancy Lieberman Award and the Dawn Staley Award for being the top Division I guard. She also became a viral sensation with her trademark three pointers from the logo followed up by her own version of the Jordan shrug that got the attention of her favorite player Kevin Durant.
Monika Cziano, the Hawkeyes power and muscle in the paint, is returning for her fifth year. Often overshadowed, she has cemented herself among the best when it comes scoring at will. Last year, she led the nation in field-goal percentage (67.9) and was ranked sixth in field-goals made with 277. She is also known for posting double figures on the glass, which included grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds against Northwestern on Jan. 29. She averaged 6.2 per game. A true team leader and veteran presence, she gives the Hawkeyes a necessary spark.
Sharpshooter Gabby Marshall, playmaker Kate Martin and the tenacious and versatile McKenna Warnock round out the starting five and each will be returning for their senior season. Other returners include sophomore Addison O’Grady and sophomore Sharon Goodman, that latter of whom spent the entirety of last season on the bench due to a torn ACL, an injury that has affected junior Kylie Feuerbach, who will miss this season.
In terms of fresh blood, there will be three freshmen making their debut: Taylor McCabe of Fremont, Neb., Jada Gyamfi of Johnson, Iowa and Hannah Stuekle of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In addition, the Hawkeyes will have Central Michigan transfer Molly Davis join them in what will be her senior season.
When looking at the totality of what lies in store for the Hawkeyes, they are legitimately stacked with talent from the starters to the bench. They still have the vitality and versatility that had them knocking on the door of the promised land last year. The starters can put up the points, get back in transition and utilize each other’s strengths. And then the bench can come and take care of the rest. They have all that and it is now a matter of time to see whether or not they can live up to the pressure.
Bluder has 100 percent trust in her players and knows what to expect from her freshman versus her upperclassmen.
“I would hope that our freshmen don’t feel as much pressure as our upperclassmen because they are freshmen,” she said. “They should be coming in here to learn, to grow and they shouldn’t have that much pressure. Now my upperclassmen, they are the ones who should feel the pressure.”
She also relied on a quote from Billie Jean King that is framed on the wall of the Iowa locker room that says “pressure is a privilege,” which can speak to the motto of the team. Early in the season, they will be taking on opponents such as NC State on Dec. 1 and Iowa State on Dec. 7. Over Thanksgiving will be traveling to Oregon to participate in the Phil Knight Tournament, which will include a matchup with Oregon State and either Duke or Connecticut. It will all be a true test of their competitive will that Clark says they are up for.
“I feel like we are quite a bit ahead from where we were last season,” she said. “It is nice to have everyone healthy and to have depth and to be healthy and to be in the gym all summer has been super important. But there is no time for messing around, we are right into it. I wouldn’t want it any other way, I know Coach Bluder wouldn’t want it any other way, and that’s what makes teams great when you play great competition.”
That and trying to enjoy this season for what it is is a balance that Czinano says they are determined to establish.
“I think all that pressure comes from outside and none of that pressure we are putting on ourselves,’’ she said. “We expect greatness out of ourselves, which is normal. I think taking that pressure, the expectation of greatness but not taking in any of the outside pressure. Staying in the moment is how you get around that.”
It is only up from here and be on the lookout for the Iowa Hawkeyes to continue to astonish, amaze and aspire to greatness.
Iowa will play their first official game on Monday, Nov. 7 at home against Southern University at 8:30pm CST.