February 23, 2024

At the Heart of Hoops

Last week was a tough one for the Iowa State women’s basketball team and its fans. The Cyclones surprisingly stumbled against Kansas State and fell short in a home heartbreaker against Baylor. 

The 2022-2023 season has been as full of adversity as the pre-season was full of excitement. Iowa State was picked to win the Big 12 conference. Then Beatriz Jordão announced her medical retirement on December 29th. Stephanie Soares tore her ACL on January 8th, leaving the Cyclones short on depth in the post. 

The 0-2 week felt like a mental turning point for me as a fan. I wanted to refocus and reset my expectations. During the game against Baylor, there was a reunion of former players to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day. I watched a line of women who played before I was born, women I watched from the stands as a kid, and women who played when I was at Iowa State. Afterward, I asked myself, why do I watch the games? Why do I drive from Des Moines to Ames to be at Hilton, weekend or week night? Why do I invest so much of my energy in cheering and hoping? The answer was simple: the people.

Of course I like to win. I’m competitive, as most sports fans are. But the biggest reasons I love cheering for women’s basketball at Iowa State have nothing to do with records. I loved the way they played for the coaching staff after Bill Fennelly’s mother died. I love the way the players make time for all the people who bring kids to the games. I love the tenacity when they fight for every ball and how they help each other up. I love to see each player develop new aspects of their game and grow into new roles. I appreciate that every one of them saw something in the university and team that mean so much to me; they chose Iowa State with some really important years of their lives. None of that becomes any less true or meaningful with a loss.

No matter what the numbers say at the end of the season, it brought me a reason to scream at the top of my lungs. It gave fans something to talk to one another about. It made memories for every kid with a Clone Cone and the people they love. Maybe they’ll sit down and write about it years later like I am now. 

If you blink, the players on the bench will be the women at center court during the next alumnae reunion. It would be a shame for me to let a preoccupation with winning allow me to miss a second of the joy. I want to appreciate every moment we have left with Ashley Joens, the best to ever put on the uniform. I don’t want to miss the balance and skill of Lexi Donarski. The leadership of Emily Ryan. The toughness of Denae Fritz. The versatility and clutch timing of Nyamer Diew. The kindness and selflessness of Morgan Kane. The relentless positive energy of Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw. 

I can’t control injuries or officiating (though Hilton will certainly try). I can remind myself that this year isn’t the mountain top — it’s a building block. It’s another year where girls see an opportunity at Iowa State and in themselves. That line of former players grows longer and stronger.

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Nicole Gustafson
Nicole Gustafson 55 Articles
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Nicole was born in Chicago and raised in Des Moines. She took her talents to The Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in journalism. You can find Nicole cheering on her favorite sports teams, hanging out with her dog, or finishing a Netflix marathon. Nicole is a big fan of #pitcherswhorake, fat guy TD's, and carbs. She's not a fan of mornings, winter, or vegetables and will complain to anyone who will listen.

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