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Leistikow: Iowa's Kathleen Doyle is tenacious. She makes you laugh. And she wins.

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kathleen Doyle can hardly believe what’s happening around her as a 21-year-old University of Iowa senior. Yet at the same time, she believes it completely. Because she’s already experienced it.

“It’s eerie,” one of the best Division I women’s basketball players in the country says. “I think about it all the time.”

For more context, let's rewind to when Doyle was 17 and going into her senior year at the prestigious Benet Academy in the western suburbs of Chicago.

The season before, Doyle was the energetic junior guard surrounded by accomplished seniors. Three of them would go on to play college ball. This was supposed to be their year, and it was. Benet rolled to a Class 4A Illinois state championship, the first in either boys or girls basketball in school history.

Now, expectations were naturally low.

“Nobody thought we would be that good anymore. But we just kind of banded together,” Doyle says, "and proved everybody wrong.”

Behind the tenacity and heroics that Doyle would become known for, Benet won an unlikely second consecutive state championship, one that few thought was possible.

Sound familiar?

Anyone who follows Hawkeye women’s basketball can likely see the parallels today. Last year was supposed to be the year for Iowa, and it was. The Hawkeyes rode national player of the year Megan Gustafson and two other key seniors, Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis, to a Big Ten Conference tournament championship and the program's first Elite Eight appearance in 26 years.

And then, poof, expectations plummeted. Everyone was gone.

.. Well, not everyone.

Lo and behold, the Hawkeyes are surprise contenders for a Big Ten championship. Even with Thursday’s loss at Maryland, they're just one game out of first place (at 20-5 overall, 11-3 in the league) with four to play.

A major common thread?

Kathleen Doyle.

Iowa women's basketball star Kathleen Doyle has been showing her fun, feisty side on the court consistently during her senior season.

She was always a firecracker.

Thinking about the youngest of their six children elicits a simultaneous chuckle from Mike and Mary Doyle. They remember the laughing, shouting and banging coming from the basement of their 115-year-old home in LaGrange Park, where young Kathleen — as early as 5 years old — would have fierce one-on-one basketball battles with sister Sheila, 3 years her elder.

“You’d hear the walls being pounded, and all of a sudden you’d hear somebody yelling,” Mark recalls. “It was undoubtedly Kathleen.”

Here was the setup. A low, unfinished ceiling with the floor joist exposed. A metal hoop mounted to one wall, maybe 5 feet off the ground. A miniature basketball. A tile section of floor that measures perhaps 100 square feet — slightly wider than a free-throw lane. Socks on. No fouls. No holds-barred.

“It would basically turn into us dunking on each other,” Kathleen says. “It would get pretty physical. It was fun.”

In that confined space, for hours a night after dinner, the skill set of one of the best guards in Hawkeye history was being developed. Mary Doyle wonders if those tile cage matches helped her youngest daughter became the Big Ten's best ball handler today.

A look at the Doyle basement today, where Kathleen first developed some of her feisty nature on the basketball court. On the left, you can see the stair that she secretly pushed off of against older sister Sheila.

Here's another thing Kathleen might've developed back then: a knack for finding every little edge to compensate for her small stature.

One secret she kept from Sheila until just a few years ago? That she used the base of the staircase, which jutted into the tile rectangle, to get a fast first step on her way to the hoop.

“It would end up a lot of times with us being mad at each other,” Doyle says. “But then we would go at it again.”

A sports-centric family — brother Mick played baseball at Notre Dame, sister Annie played basketball at St. Mary’s College and Sheila played volleyball at North Carolina — created the most fiery competitor of them all. Yet Kathleen was a "tater tot" on the court, her high school coach affectionately recalls. As a sophomore, Doyle stood 5 feet, 4 inches.

“Swimming in my jersey. Shorts down to my knees,” she recalls with a laugh. "I just tried to play good defense and stay in front of people."

Then came a big development, literally. A growth spurt of five inches before her junior year happened so fast that Doyle developed back problems requiring physical therapy. But now she had a college-looking body to go with a polished guard’s game. Doyle’s Division I acumen would soon come into focus.

The eight-member Doyle family, from left: Mick, Kathleen (the Iowa star), Sheila, Mike (dad), Annie, Bridget, Mary (mom) and Colin. Kathleen is the youngest of six children.

One word describes Doyle best: winner.

At Iowa, Doyle set a freshman record for assists and kept building her game and influence from there. She and fellow seniors Makenzie Meyer and Amanda Ollinger have been a part of 93 Hawkeye wins, already tied for the most in the 20-year Lisa Bluder era over a four-year span.

Back at the Benet Academy, the success was ascending, too. Back-to-back state titles followed Doyle’s growth to her current 5-9 (or 5-9½, if you ask her). Although Benet’s most famous basketball alum is Frank Kaminsky (a consensus all-American in 2015 for Wisconsin and a top-10 NBA Draft pick), Joe Kilbride says an argument could be made that she was the best basketball player, boy or girl, the private Catholic school has ever had.

Because with Doyle on the floor, anything seemed and was possible.

Kilbride, who coached Doyle all four years at Benet (the final two as head coach), likes to tell this story from her senior season.

A 4A quarterfinal game against Edwardsville. Tie score, 51-all, with 20 seconds left. Doyle drives the lane and misses a lay-up, but an ensuing jump ball gave Benet one more chance.

Kilbride called the same play during a timeout, a clear-out for Doyle.

“You got it this time?” he asked her.

No hesitation.

“Yep.”

“She wasn’t beating herself up," Kilbride says. “We run the same play. She scores with 10 seconds left, and we win."

Doyle accounted for 24 points in Benet’s 42-39 title-game win. Her step-back 3-pointer with 2½ minutes to go, a fearless shot from the left wing, put her team in the lead for good. A big-time shot from a big-game player.

Kilbride says that was Doyle to the core. Against the toughest opponents, she would go out and score 30 points. Against lesser opponents, she would barely shoot.

“Her teammates loved her,” he says. “She could’ve gone and gotten 50 against one of these teams. Instead, she’s trying to get a kid that barely ever plays her only bucket of the season."

That’s who Doyle was then. That’s who she is now at Iowa.

The fact that she even became a Hawkeye, though, is its own story.

Here’s the quick version. She had signed with Nebraska in November of her senior year at Benet. But when then-Cornhuskers coach Connie Yori resigned amid allegations of player mistreatment in April 2016, Doyle was released from her scholarship and re-opened her recruitment.

As luck would have it, the Hawkeyes needed a point guard for their class after Whitney Jennings’ transfer to Butler. It wound up being a great fit for both; Doyle could still play in the Big Ten, and Iowa City was even closer to home. By late May, it was a done deal. A few weeks later, she was in Iowa summer school, getting acclimated to her new basketball family.

It was an unexpected detour. But if anyone was built to quickly acclimate to one, it was Doyle.

“She’s always been full of joy,” says her mother, an elementary-school teacher. “… Even at grade school, teachers would say, ‘She always has a smile on her face.’”

She’s a social butterfly. Those close to her say she’s always got something to add to a conversation, in a good way. You always want to hear what she says next. She’s always good for a laugh. And there’s that ever-present, infectious smile.

"I don’t think anybody on our team laughs more than she does,” says Meyer, who has been Doyle's roommate for two years. "She finds the stupidest things hilarious. She’s just fun to be around."

In Iowa’s recent home win against Nebraska (big game), Doyle set a school record with 15 assists. Her unselfishness is one of the reasons that Monika Czinano (15.3 points per game) and Meyer (14.5) are having career years and rank in the Big Ten’s top 10 in scoring.

“Making a sweet pass and setting up a teammate for an easy shot is so fun,” Doyle says. “You get to see your teammates succeed, and you do the work for them to do it. There’s something about having good floor vision and making all the right reads, especially as a point guard, to get everybody going.”

That desire to lift up others is evident during pregame warmups, where Doyle can be seen dancing to the music or singing or saying something goofy to a teammate.

"I just try to keep it really loose and have fun,” Doyle says.

You might be surprised about the reason behind her pregame antics, though. Then again, when you understand her one-track, gotta-win mindset ... you might not be.

“I’m so competitive and want to win so badly," she says, "that if I started focusing as soon as I started warming up, then I would be completely exhausted mentally before the game even started.

“Once the national anthem hits, that’s when I start locking in.”

Bigger things ahead? Don’t be surprised.

There have been six 600-point seasons in Iowa history, three of them by Gustafson. Hawkeye legends Cindy Haugejorde, Michelle Edwards and Franthea Price are the others. At her current clip, Doyle (at 458 points) could become the seventh. Elite company, indeed.

Her 18.3 points per game ranks fourth in the Big Ten, but — surprise! — that average goes up to a league-best 20.5 against conference opponents. She easily leads the league in assists per game (6.4) and is a relentless defender. As long as Iowa finishes near the top of the Big Ten, Doyle will have a strong case to be named the conference’s player of the year — the award Gustafson shared in 2018 and won in 2019.

Team wins are more important than individual honors to Kathleen Doyle. Here, she (No. 22) celebrates the Hawkeyes' Jan. 9 win against Maryland.

Just this week, she was named as one of 30 players up for the Naismith Award as college basketball’s top player.

"It sounds so cheesy, but I genuinely only think about winning games and winning championships as a team," Doyle says. "Coach Kilbride always said that team success brings individual success."

A Big Ten championship is first on the to-do list.

A left-wing, step-back 3 in the final minutes of the title game in Indianapolis?

Why not?

Whatever happens next, Doyle’s time at Iowa is running out. Three guaranteed home games remain at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, starting with Sunday’s 2 p.m. matchup with Wisconsin. Doyle’s huge family — three siblings live in Chicago, another in St. Louis and another in Denver — is trying to catch every last moment, be it in person, on TV or via web streams.

Mike Doyle has attended each of Kathleen’s games this season; Mary has attended most. They joke about how they'll fill their winter schedules after their youngest's collegiate career ends.

"I can’t get sad about it, because it’s been such a great thing,” Mike says. "Try to pick somebody that’s had an experience for four years like Kathleen’s had. Could it have been any better? You’d be hard-pressed to imagine that, right?"

That type of family support offers a window into one more of Kathleen’s pregame rituals, although this one is more sentimental.

About 20 minutes before every game, her eyes start scanning the stands. It’s something she started doing in high school. She jokes now that it's "kind of morbid," but until she saw her parents, she was worried that something awful had happened to them.

She finally told them about this in college. Now, they make sure to reach their seats at least 15 minutes before tip-off, instead of two. Doyle says her mom is especially sentimental, "and my dad pretends like he's not. But he is."

When Doyle spots them, she gives them a wave and, more than likely, one of her warm smiles.

"They’re the best support system in the whole world," Doyle says. “I’m so lucky to have the two people that love me the most in the world watching me do what I love."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.