Leistikow: Why Iowa basketball's Caitlin Clark could have been a superstar in soccer, too (2024)

As so much attention rains down on Caitlin Clark as the Iowa basketball superstar closes in on the Division I women’s scoring record, the conversation inevitably ends up focusing on: How did she become so unbelievably good?

Clark’s incredible vision, uncanny instincts and fearless shot distances are some of the traits that have her on the doorstep of passing Washington’s Kelsey Plum for No. 1 all-time, perhaps as early as Sunday’s game at Nebraska (Noon CT, FOX).

So, to understand how she became 22-year-old Caitlin Clark on the basketball court, it helps to first flash back to 11-year-old Caitlin Clark on the soccer field, in a 9-on-9 tournament championship game, while playing for the West Des Moines Soccer Club.

Her team had just fallen behind, 1-0, and Clark – renowned for her competitive fire – hatched an impromptu idea. As the teams were getting realigned after the goal, Clark ran up to her coach, Ross Moffat, to share (and ask permission for) her plan.

“Hey,” she asked, “can I just shoot it from the kickoff?”

Moffat, who by this point understood and fostered what he called Clark's "maverick" approach, told her, “Do whatever you think.”

Clark quickly schemed for one of her teammates to touch the ball first before she planned to uncork a (legal) shot from the midfield line.

What happened next, knowing what Clark has become, will not come as a surprise.

More:As Caitlin Clark nears the scoring record, Iowa women's basketball is focused on Penn State

The ball rocketed off Clark's right foot. The goalkeeper, not expecting such a brash attempt, tried to scramble backward but had no chance. The ball descended artfully below the crossbar and dove into the back of the net, tying the match at 1-1. Clark postured at midfield, similarly to how she does after her frequent incredible Hawkeye basketball moments.

Leistikow: Why Iowa basketball's Caitlin Clark could have been a superstar in soccer, too (1)

“And she just looked at me with that little look you see on TV, you know?” Moffat said. “She would just do stuff like that. Like, ‘Yeah I’m going to take over the game.’ Even as an 11-year-old soccer player.

“I was just laughing. I just love that she not only had the ability to do that, but the ability to even think of it.”

Clark has long referenced her soccer background as helping her become better at basketball, the sport that’s made her famous with endorsem*nts from the likes of Nike, Hy-Vee, H&R Block, Gatorade and Buick and has her appearing in national commercials (and trading comedic lines) with Jake from State Farm.

But here’s the twist to the story you probably haven’t heard.

She could’ve been just as good at soccer.

“Quite frankly, and I’m not trying to brag about it, but I think she probably could have been the same sort of talent in soccer that she is in basketball,” her father, Brent Clark, said. “She could have been on USA, junior-national type teams.”

Clark’s family is about as humble as they come, so to glean that kind of perspective from her dad is revealing. He saw what her youth and high school soccer coaches did: An uncommon talent that could flourish into something amazing.

Leistikow: Why Iowa basketball's Caitlin Clark could have been a superstar in soccer, too (2)

Her early soccer days

Brent Clark is often asked by other parents of young kids about his recommendations, how he and his wife Anne nurtured Caitlin to become the basketball star that she is.

His answer? Get your children engaged with as many different activities as possible, sports or otherwise.

Beyond basketball and soccer, Caitlin at some point during childhood was involved with piano, softball, tennis, track and field and volleyball. As her parents look back now, all of those activities elevated certain skills, both mentally and physically.

But basketball and soccer clearly became Caitlin's two favorites.

For her, they're forever linked.

More:3 cool graphics illustrate Caitlin Clark's magnificence as she topples NCAA records

She played on co-ed teams in both sports, starting at age 5. In soccer, she was always the best player on the field – boy or girl. Any soccer parent knows the clusters that can form on the field with very young players. Caitlin was the one who would seize possession of the ball and never give it back, outracing and outmaneuvering defenders to score … repeatedly.

“It was one of those deals where you had to tell Caitlin to stop scoring so many goals,” Brent said.

Young Caitlin, ever the competitor, was perplexed at her dad's request.

“She didn’t quite understand that whole concept,” Brent said, with a laugh. “(In her mind), the object is to score.”

Scoring – now there's a shocker, huh? – quickly emerged as Clark’s top skill on the soccer field.

One of the many qualities that separates Clark from her basketball competition is her size. At 6 feet tall, she’s a taller point guard than most defenders who are fast enough to keep up with her. She pairs that height − which helps her shot to avoid being blocked − with supreme lower-body strength.

That leg strength was always a huge soccer weapon.

“She was powerful,” said John Sheridan, another one of her youth coaches. “A powerful player.”

Leistikow: Why Iowa basketball's Caitlin Clark could have been a superstar in soccer, too (3)

When Clark was an early teenager, Sheridan was the executive director for Sporting Iowa, a partnership between the West Des Moines and Johnston/Urbandale soccer clubs. Clark and Maya McDermott, a Johnston product who now stars in basketball at Northern Iowa, were the club’s top two forwards. McDermott's game had more finesse. Clark had the raw shooting and scoring power.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” Sheridan said, “and I’ve not seen a female soccer player strike a ball like Caitlin. ... There have been some better players, for sure. But in terms of ball-striking, she had unbelievable technique.”

Every coach interviewed for this story recalled some kind of can’t-believe-it soccer shot that Clark pulled off.

More:Caitlin Clark's 60-point game at Dowling Catholic was a sign of things to come

At age 13, Clark was playing in a state cup final. The game was locked in a 0-0 tie.

“And she just took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored two wonder goals,” Moffat said.

Clark's dad recalled one winning goal, maybe around age 14. In the final minutes of a tie game, after a referee’s whistle, she scrambled to grab a loose ball and set herself up for a direct kick, a good 40 yards from the goal.

Clark’s shot hit nothing but net.

(Where have you heard that before?)

“It was one of those deals where she just cranked it up over a whole line of defenders, over the goalie and into the net. It was stunning,” Brent Clark said. “It was like, ‘What did she just do there?’ It was remarkable. Like I tell people, she’s never afraid to take the last shot or the last kick. That’s the best thing about it. Whether you make it or don’t make it, it’s the desire to take it.”

Scoring in soccer requires more than a powerful shot, though.

“Her coordination and balance is unreal, similar to how she was as a soccer player. You constantly have to pick your angles … make quick decisions in tight spaces," Sheridan said. "She’s really, really good at that, especially as an attacking player. It’s the hardest thing to do in the game, score a goal. And she was really good at it."

More:Three reasons Caitlin Clark is so relatable - whether you're a fan, player or parent

Becoming an unstoppable soccer striker

By the spring of Clark’s freshman year at Dowling Catholic High School, she was already being nationally recruited in basketball. She eventually became a top-five prospect in the Class of 2020.

JP Pearson, who has been Dowling's soccer coach since 2011, had heard of Clark's magnificent soccer skills but also knew of her basketball commitments. So when Pearson held his team tryouts in early March of 2017, he was hoping that Clark would show up.

Leistikow: Why Iowa basketball's Caitlin Clark could have been a superstar in soccer, too (4)

Once he saw Clark’s lanky frame and big smile hit the field, he giddily told his top assistant coach, “Guess who’s here? Guess who’s here?”

"I was trying to keep a straight face," Pearson said.

Dowling coaches and the Clark family worked together to be on the same page during that busy spring. Caitlin was going to have to miss some practices because of basketball obligations, but she wanted to play as much soccer as she could.

Dowling has reached the state tournament 11 times out of 12 seasons in Pearson's time as head coach. Nonetheless, the new freshman was a high-impact difference-maker in an established program.

“I knew right away she was a forward,” Pearson said. “The way she used her body, even as a freshman … with her back to a defender, the defenders couldn’t win the ball. As you can see on the (basketball) court, she was really good at turning players.”

Because Clark was busy representing Team USA (and winning a gold medal) in the FIBA Under-16 Americas Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she only played in six soccer games as a high school freshman.

More:Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes lauds Iowa's Caitlin Clark, says she will 'dominate' the WNBA

In those half-dozen games, Clark scored 26 goals. She was the only freshman named first-team all-state.

“She was D-I material in soccer, easily,” Pearson said. “She did have a way to go, but if she would have stayed in soccer and made that her No. 1 sport …“

Pearson’s sentence trailed off there, perhaps not wanting to sound hyperbolic. Instead, he just stated simply, “She was good.”

Clark played her full sophom*ore year, scoring one of those unbelievable, unforgettable goals to help rally Dowling past Johnston, 4-3, to reach the 2018 state tournament.

There’s a reason that the most famous soccer players in the world (and the highest paid) are the goal-scorers. Being able to finish in the back of the net is the most sought-after skill in the world's most popular sport. That was Clark's forte.

But to excel, she first had to get the ball.

That is an interesting difference in the basketball vs. soccer conversation. In basketball, Clark is the maestro and distributor, in addition to the record-setting scorer, as the Hawkeyes' point guard. In soccer, she needed to rely on others to get her the ball. That aspect could become frustrating for Clark, but her determination helped devise unique methods of getting open, even when defenders knew she was the one they had to stop.

Once Clark got the ball, she inevitably created space for what Sheridan called a "frightening" shot.

“In soccer, you’ve got to find little pockets of space inside the ‘18’ (the penalty box), because defenders are in there,” Pearson said. “You’ve got other forwards in there, you’ve got a goalkeeper.

More:Kelsey Plum 'excited' for Iowa's Caitlin Clark to break her Division I career scoring record

“You’ve got to be able to find a little pocket to receive the ball, and that’s what Caitlin’s strength was.”

Clark's soccer career ends, but the impact carries on

A 2-0 loss to West Des Moines Valley in the Class 3-A quarterfinals in 2018 would be Clark’s final competitive soccer game. Her basketball recruitment reached yet another level as a high school junior. As her father said, “It got to the point where it didn’t make sense anymore” to continue in soccer.

Still, the more that Clark’s soccer background is understood, the more it makes sense how those skills transferred to the hardwood and helped her become the basketball player she is today.

Entering Sunday's game, Clark has scored 3,489 points (second in D-I history, 39 shy of passing Plum’s 3,527), dished out 995 assists (five shy of becoming the sixth player in D-I history with 1,000) and grabbed 869 rebounds (19 away from passing Toni Foster for No. 5 in Iowa history). In other words, Clark’s basketball game is so much more than scoring – even though that’s the area in which she currently gets the most attention.

Her father thinks Clark's anticipation, creativity, physicality and passing angles all stem from soccer. In a recent game at Maryland, Clark showed how she can anticipate where her teammate is going to be with a series of beautiful backdoor-cut assists to teammates Kate Martin, Molly Davis and Sydney Affolter.

Clark, on her elite passing after a late-December home win, said, "I don’t go into the gym and just chuck passes against the wall. I don’t do that. You get that from playing basketball. That’s how you learn. You read angles. I think soccer helped me a lot in reading angles and understanding angles."

More:Iowa's Caitlin Clark to be featured on Sue Bird's new ESPN+ show "Sue's Places"

The repetition of passing angles in game situations combined with Clark’s uncommon instincts is what bridged her soccer skills and her basketball prowess. Moffat marveled at Clark's ability at a young age to seek out open space and exploit it in her own way. That is something that Iowa basketball coach Lisa Bluder deserves credit for, too; creating a system that allows Clark's natural instincts to flourish.

“A lot of soccer players want to please the coach; do things simple and do what the coach asks. I always loved that maverick in her,” Moffat said. “If I did anything to help her, hopefully I helped to nurture that willingness to do something a little bit different.”

How often have we seen Clark deliver those “wow” moments on the basketball court? In the regular-season finale against Indiana last season, with 1.5 seconds left and Iowa down two, everybody knew Clark was going to get the basketball off an inbounds play. Yet she beat two Indiana defenders to her spot, caught the off-center pass from Martin and elevated to launch and rattle home a memorable 3-pointer for a walk-off win on national TV.

We saw Clark dazzle with 41 points in the program’s historic upset over No. 1 South Carolina at last year’s Final Four, including a spin move near the rim that left 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso helpless. Against Michigan State this year with a tie score in the final moments, Clark made the most out of a bungled final play and grabbed the ball to release a 30-foot shot that left her right hand with 0.1 seconds left.

Nothing but net.

In basketball or in soccer, Clark has always made the impossible look routine.

“It’s one thing to see it. To have the technical ability to execute it is another, and she also had that," Moffat said. “She undoubtedly could’ve been a top-level soccer player.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 29years with The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Sports Network. Join Chad's text-message group (free for subscribers) atHawkCentral.com/HawkeyesTexts.Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Leistikow: Why Iowa basketball's Caitlin Clark could have been a superstar in soccer, too (2024)

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