Caitlin Clark was a grade-school phenom; her 60-point game in high school was sign of things to come

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Caitlin Clark‘s skills were so advanced when she was in grade school that her parents signed her up to play on boys teams. By the time she entered middle school she was well-known in basketball circles across Iowa.

This was long before Clark became one of the faces of women’s basketball and, now, on the cusp of setting the NCAA Division I scoring record.

Clark was in sixth grade when Jan Jensen first heard about her. Not long after, Iowa‘s associate head coach and chief recruiter went to watch the prodigy from West Des Moines.

She saw a confident player making pinpoint passes often too hot for her teammates to handle, someone who was creative on drives to the hoop and, of course, someone willing to launch the deep 3-pointers that would become her signature and one of the reasons she’s one of the United States’ highest-profile female athletes.

“It didn’t take but a second, maybe a minute,” Jensen said. “That little step-back sassy 3, this little seventh-, eighth-grader. Yeah, she’s diff. You could just tell. They’re easy to identify but really hard to get. Everybody can see the true, true ones. The trick is to get them.”

Clark needs 66 points to break the NCAA career record of 3,527 by Washington’s Kelsey Plum (2013-17). The Hawkeyes play Penn State at home on Thursday. With an average of 32.4 points per game, Clark is on track to break the record at Nebraska on Sunday or Feb. 15 at home against Michigan.

“I didn’t predict this to happen, but just knowing her work ethic, knowing her passion for the sport, knowing her fearlessness, I’m really not surprised,” said Kristin Meyer, who coached Clark from 2016-20 at Dowling Catholic High in West Des Moines. “More than anything, I’m so happy for her to get to accomplish all of these things, to grow the sport and to grow the popularity of women’s basketball and also the state of Iowa.”

The daughter of Brent Clark and Anne Nizzi-Clark grew up as the middle child in a sports-centric family. Caitlin said when she first started playing basketball, she would cry after every game her team lost.

“That’s because of how much I cared,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m like 6 years old and it didn’t matter, obviously. But it mattered to me.”

That passion for winning took root when she and brothers Blake and Colin played board games and all kinds of sports against each other. She recalled a basement Nerf basketball game with Colin that got overheated.

“I just threw him into the wall,” she said. “He went flying and his head slapped into it. He put his hand back and it was just full of blood. He runs upstairs to my mom. She goes and gets a bunch of staples in his head.”

Meyer was preparing for her first year as Dowling High coach in 2016 when she first heard about a “stud eighth-grader” who would be joining the team.

“I was, ‘OK, that’s nice. We’ll have a good player,'” Meyer said.

And then she went to watch Clark’s AAU club the spring before her freshman year — “Oh, she’s real good,” Meyer remembers thinking — and realized she would build her first team around Clark.

Coaching Clark was sometimes a challenge, Meyer said, because she was so advanced in her skills and basketball IQ. As has happened during her career at Iowa, Clark would show frustration if the target of one of her passes wasn’t ready to catch it or if a play didn’t unfold as designed.

“There were times the competitiveness of her kind of took over or she wasn’t as patient,” Meyer said, “but every high schooler has to grow through some things and, looking back, her skill level was on a different level than other people, so it was harder for her at times.”

Clark, who never won a high school state title, ranks No. 4 on the Iowa high school five-on-five career scoring chart with 2,547 points. Many Iowa schools played six-on-six into the 1980s and ’90s.

Clark’s AAU team, the All-Iowa Attack, won the 2018 Nike GEYBL national championship and was runner-up in 2017 and 2019. She won gold medals at the international level with the USA Under 16 and U19 teams.

One of her few disappointments — and another source of motivation — came the summer after her sophomore season when she was left off the 12-player roster for the USA U17 team.

“She’s one who loves a challenge and then responds to it,” Meyer said. “She took a big step between her sophomore and junior year, and a lot of that was due to not making the team.”

Clark was Gatorade National Player of the Year after averaging 32.6 points per game as a junior. Her defining high school game came late that season at Mason City, where she made a state-record 13 3-pointers on 17 attempts, and scored 60 points, one off the state record.

By then, Clark was a consensus five-star prospect and receiving attention from almost every major program. The Hawkeyes ultimately won out over Notre Dame.

Megan Meyer (no relation to Kristin), who played AAU ball with Clark and was her teammate at Iowa for a year, was one of the Mason City players who tried to defend her. Mason City was no pushover, and most of Clark’s shots were contested in the 32-minute game.

“I remember thinking, ‘How in the world can somebody score 60 points in a high school basketball game?'” Megan Meyer said.

Clark hit six 3s and scored 25 points in the first quarter alone. Almost every shot was contested. When the game ended, the Mason City student section lined up to get her autograph, same as fans do after Iowa games now.

“That game, I’m sure, had a lot of foreshadowing of what was to come,” Jensen said.

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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