Chase Coley reflects on her Iowa career ahead of senior day. Dargan Southard / The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Her blonde locks start bouncing every time the music cranks up. Pregame warm-ups, before the opening tip, even during a timeout — doesn’t matter. Chase Coley is down to groove whenever.
If it’s not spontaneous dancing, there are other lighthearted weapons in the Iowa senior’s arsenal. She can imitate Hawkeyes past and present, such as Ally Disterhoft’s distinct left-to-right shot or Megan Gustafson’s unintentional evil face. She’s spot-on with coaches’ antics too, like Jan Jensen’s bang brush or Lisa Bluder’s patented foot stomp. No teammate can forget Coley’s outlandish pre-practice speeches either.
With Iowa on the doorstep of its first NCAA Tournament berth in three years, Coley’s versatile vibe has been as meaningful as any shot taken or rebound grabbed. As the one who brings the noise, the Hawkeyes’ outspoken senior, who will play her last home game Saturday versus Indiana, is a walking lesson on self-confidence.
Coley knows her role and plays it well.
“To be honest,” Gustafson said, “I think she’s the glue of our team.”
It’s a two-fold job. She can be the comic relief when needed, never scared of embarrassment or awkwardness. But Coley will respond with conviction if something needs to be said, implementing the veteran voice other players might be hesitant to use.
She traces her vibrant personality back to her parents, who both encouraged Coley to be herself and never worry about outside perception. When her dad, who also doubled as her high school coach, was constantly being loud and goofy, Coley’s mother encouraged her daughter to act the same.
Coley still hears her mom’s reminders today, even though her family dynamic has been drastically altered from those adolescent memories. It’s been more than seven years since Kelli Jo Behrens-Coley died of a heart attack on Nov. 3, 2010, passing away at only 46 years old. The pain will never fully subside. There are often still days when the tears start flowing.
But Coley knows Kelli Jo isn’t far away.
“I just constantly hear that voice of hers,” she says. “It’s in the back of my head like, ‘Smile Chase — be happy. If they’re down, go lift them up. You’re really good at that.’ She’s just constantly reminding me. I just hear those reminders she always told me growing up. Those stick with me like nobody’s business.
“I always hear Kelly Jo in my head. That’s what’s stuck with me so much from my mom is her reminding me, ‘You know what to do. You’ll make the right decision — go help that person. Your team is down right now — go make them laugh, make them smile, get people’s heads out of the clouds.’ I know I’m a big presence when I walk in the room, and I know that’s how she’d want me to be.”
Those motivational words have only strengthened Coley’s confidence as she’s weaved her way through her collegiate career. She and redshirt junior Carly Mohns are the only remaining pieces from Iowa’s last NCAA Tournament appearance — a Sweet 16 run in 2015 — and the obstacles have stacked up since.
There were the two bubble seasons that followed, generating Selection Monday disappointment as Iowa landed in the NIT. There were Coley’s junior-year struggles after a sophomore surge, when she dropped from 31 starts to only two in a season span. New faces and new personalities have come and gone along the way. Adjusting has been paramount.
But Coley has rebounded with her most productive season as a Hawkeye, one that’s been dotted with memorable moments. The game-winner at Michigan State, the dominant 24-point outing versus Penn State, the riveting showing in her final road game at Rutgers — all while leading the only way she knows how.
“I feel like it’s my role to be a leader, and I feel like my role as a leader is being a facilitator and making sure everyone’s voice is heard,” Coley said. “We have a lot of good opinions on this team, but obviously, you can’t just have 11 girls spewing things out. I feel like I’m very good at saying, ‘OK, what do you have to say about this? What do you have to say about this? Compromise on this.’
“I’m very outspoken, so I feel like I’m a good example of ‘It’s OK to speak your opinion. The coaches will ask us, ‘How do you feel about this? How do you feel about this?’ And everyone’s kind of sitting there nodding their heads. And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ And then everyone will speak up. I feel like there’s nothing wrong with saying what’s on your mind, and I feel like I’m a lead-by-example person on being yourself.”
Like any human, though, Coley doesn’t have it every night — but she knows how important her infectious energy is regardless.
Bluder pointed to a recent scenario that illustrated exactly that: Coley’s grandmother passed away shortly before Iowa’s Feb. 11 game at Northwestern, forcing her to miss practice the day before the game.
“Yet she still brought it for her team (on gameday),” Bluder said. “She probably didn’t feel like bringing it, but she did. And again, that’s an example of how Chase really goes beyond herself and it’s not about her.
“I respect that a whole lot, because it’s hard to be that person all the time. We all have good days and bad days — she’s going to do it regardless. She’s going to do it for her team because she knows that they need that. And that’s so selfless.”
As Coley’s Iowa days wind down, her Hawkeye teammates aren’t fully ready for the void her absence will create. They’ll miss the dancing, the bubbly goofiness, the shot impressions, the coaching imitations, the motherly qualities.
“The team dynamic is going to change so much without her,” sophomore Makenzie Meyer said.
Coley doesn’t want to consider the end either. She’s kept the reflecting at a minimum, choosing instead to focus on what’s still ahead. There’s the Carver-Hawkeye Arena finale, the Big Ten Tournament and what she hopes is a deep March run.
Maybe then she’ll look back, likely with a smile.
“I honestly couldn’t imagine my time here without her,” Gustafson said. “Just thinking about that kind of makes me emotional, that she won’t be around next year.
“We all love Chase, and she’s a pretty special person.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.