Leaning on in-state newcomers for offensive prowess, Iowa-Drake rivalry adds another overlapping element

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

Anyone planted inside Iowa’s walls knows the hefty overlap that resurfaces each time the Bulldogs and Hawkeyes rekindle their women’s basketball rivalry.

Iowa’s coach used to be the Drake coach. The Drake coach previously played for the Iowa coach. The Hawkeyes’ top assistant has her jersey hanging in the Knapp Center rafters. Hawkeye gold and Bulldog blue consistently blend together in recruiting battles for in-state prospects.

Now, as Drake and Iowa both navigate this season with a new wave of talent hoping to prolong their recent runs of heightened success, there’s more familiarity to be found between two newcomers buoying each program’s offensive attack.

Caitlin Clark and Grace Berg took different paths to their in-state destinations. The former picked the Hawkeyes out of Dowling Catholic to end a highly-publicized recruiting process. The latter, after graduating as Indianola's all-time leading scorer, had a detour at Missouri before transferring closer to home. What could not be more similar, though, is the way these former Class 5A foes have immediately impacted their respective squads early on in 2020.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder, left, embraces Drake head coach Jennie Baranczyk before a NCAA non-conference women's basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Expect more of the same from Clark and Berg Wednesday, when Iowa (1-0) and Drake (1-1) battle again for neighborly supremacy at 6 p.m. inside the Knapp Center.          

“You definitely want the bragging rights that come along with (facing familiar faces),” Clark said this week. “It’s just crazy to see how everyone has developed and improved their game (since crossing paths in high school and AAU). It’s fun to go out there and play against them at the next level.”

With both programs absorbing crucial graduations — Kathleen Doyle, Makenzie Meyer and Amanda Ollinger in Iowa City; Becca Hittner, Sara Rhine and Brenni Rose in Des Moines — there were offensive holes that needed filling if Drake and Iowa are to compete for NCAA Tournament spots again. Although doing so will require a season-long collective effort, there’s no doubt Clark and Berg shoulder immediate expectations in their new homes.  

It’s early, obviously. But the initial returns have been promising ahead of this in-state showdown. Clark racked up co-Big Ten freshman of the week honors after dropping 27 points in her collegiate debut against Northern Iowa. Berg also grabbed some league recognition as the Missouri Valley Conference’s newcomer of the week, spearheaded by her 24-point outing in Drake’s season-opening win over Creighton.

Iowa center Sharon Goodman, second from right, and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrate with teammates heading into a timeout during a NCAA non-conference women's basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Expect both to be atop Wednesday’s scouting reports.

“Grace can do it all," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “She can score from all three areas. She can rebound, runs well. Just a superb athlete and someone we’re going to have to keep track of.

“… I do always think there’s a little bit more energy with in-state games for the in-state kids. They’ve been playing with each other in AAU programs and against each other in high school for a long time. There gets to be just a little bit more juice when you’re playing them.”

That juice will have to come from within as Iowa and Drake embark on another crowd-less affair. The Hawkeyes have already done the home dance with only sporadic family members there to make noise. Drake now gets to navigate the same scenario after opening on the road against Creighton and Green Bay. It’s an unfortunate caveat to a game usually bubbling with fan jubilation.

It could very well be Clark and Berg who provide those needed jolts in what should be another classic in-state showdown. Although Iowa has run away with this series of late, having lost just once in the last 18 games against Drake, four of the last five Knapp Center matchups have been decided by single digits.

Drake sophomore forward Grace Berg poses for a photo on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, during the Drake Women's Basketball team's media day at Knapp Center in Des Moines.

If another close contest unfolds, expect Berg and Clark to be top options late. Bluder and Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk are plenty aware of the damage each can do once winning time arrives. Like everything else associated with this rivalry, there’s no need to get everyone up to speed.

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.