Iowa women's basketball: 'Natural leader' Kate Martin commanding respect for retooling Hawkeyes

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Life as the youngest sibling amid a sports-centric family can create experiences outside the norm. A snippet of Kate Martin’s adolescence years went like this:

“I played on my brother’s basketball team in first grade when he was in third grade,” the Iowa redshirt freshman explained at Thursday’s media day. “I played baseball with the guys. I played tackle football with all the guys in third grade. I was the only girl on that one. I was the quarterback, kicker and linebacker.

“Ever since I was little, I had that competitive spirit. I always wanted to prove myself.”

Iowa guard Kate Martin (20) poses for a photo during Hawkeyes women's basketball media day, Thursday, Oct., 24, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

That fiery demeanor will now glow on a grander stage as Martin readies for her own collegiate journey. Her older sister was a Truman (Mo.) State guard; aunt and uncle played at the Division I level; her dad coaches high school football after a playing career at Western Illinois.

The athletic world is all Martin’s known.

She was largely detached from it a year ago, forced to watch Iowa’s magical Elite Eight run from the bench while donning a massive boot following an ACL tear. The injury occurs frequently in the women’s game, but that doesn’t make the recovery and mental aspect any less grueling.

Martin’s freshman season provided lessons in patience and perseverance.

The knee is sharp again, as is that burning drive. Martin is ready to mold it all together in what could be an emphatic entrance to Big Ten Conference basketball.

“The aura of confidence she has, it just rubs off on people,” senior guard Kathleen Doyle said. “She’s a freshman, but she had a year to watch us all and practice against us at the end of the year when she was back. Kate’s really excited to get out there. Her competitive nature really helps her as a leader.

"She just has such a will to win.”      

That's certainly high praise coming from Doyle, who’s been the Hawkeyes’ emotional presence since she arrived in Iowa City. And Iowa could use Martin’s vigor, for sure. Entering a year where the Hawkeyes’ losses are more discussed than who’s remaining, an organic transition in leadership is imperative.

Martin’s makeup is a perfect fit for Iowa’s philosophical shift back to previous days. The departures of Hannah Stewart and Megan Gustafson make a guard-heavy attack more practical — and Martin fits right in. The 6-foot redshirt freshman can score from the perimeter and also attack the boards from down below when needed.

Versatility carries weight until Iowa can get certain pieces cemented. Martin’s voice and confidence gives her a path to production in her first on-court action.

“I think anyone who’s taken out of the sport they love for a whole year, you just really want to get back to it,” Martin said. “It was a great summer, and it’s been a great first 18 practices. So I’m just really excited.”

Given the unknowns, Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder will likely lean on backcourt veterans in the starting five; seniors Makenzie Meyer, Amanda Ollinger and Doyle, as well as redshirt junior Alexis Sevillian to go with sophomore post Monika Czinano. But even if Martin doesn’t start Iowa’s Nov. 7 season-opener against Florida Atlantic, she’ll certainly be weaved in immediately. Iowa has a window for November tinkering, as four mid-major opponents await before the Hawkeyes jump into the meat of their nonconference slate.

It’s evident Martin’s voice commands respect. Her play could too soon enough.

“She really is a natural leader,” Bluder said. “She's a person coming in here that's going to use her voice. She's incredibly coachable, hard worker — and she definitely has leadership qualities — so I'm excited about that because you don't want to have to every year teach or coach new leaders. You want to progressively bring them along. I think that's what we have to do, so that every year you're not starting from scratch in that leadership role.

“It's really important, I think, to identify young leaders and to try to help them come along in that, and Kate is definitely one of those people. I think she'll be a leader, even though she doesn't have that title on the floor this year. She was a part of last year. She saw what it takes. She knows what kind of work ethic we have on our basketball team and what kind of attitude we have on our team.”

Iowa guard Kate Martin warms up before a NCAA women's basketball tournament second-round game, Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

For now, Iowa’s attitude is back to its roots. Last season carried expectations that were met, but the Hawkeyes traditionally seem more comfortable when they have something to prove. You won’t see Iowa crack any preseason polls or NCAA Tournament projections.

The Hawkeyes don’t mind such a scenario. There’s confidence in the culture, as well as in the pieces remaining.

Martin could be the asset who blossoms the most. She’s been building toward this moment for quite some time.  

“I’m just really excited to get back on the court,” Martin said, “and see where this team goes.”                  

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.