Poster girl: How Ally Disterhoft realized her Hawkeye dreams
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ally Disterhoft kept her eyes locked on the sea of black and gray seats before her. She smelled the raspberry soft-serve ice cream — her favorite — that she says seems to linger inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
She tried to focus on sight and smell — on any sense other than sound, really. But that task was impossible. Behind her, the photographer’s camera kept snapping shot after shot after shot …
Stare straight ahead. Don’t move a muscle, she remembers thinking
This was 2004. She was 9. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder needed a little girl for a women’s basketball promotional poster. She picked Disterhoft, an eager, scrawny regular at all the summer basketball camps who so desperately wanted to be a Hawkeye.
"I think I was shaking," laughed Disterhoft, now 21 and decidedly less afraid of photoshoots.
The finished poster shows Disterhoft in the middle, her back to the camera, a ball tucked under her right arm. A thought bubble floats above her head, filled with action shots of those 2004 Iowa women's basketball players.
The poster’s theme was "Dream Big."
Back then, Disterhoft was rail-thin and not overly athletic. She grew up playing her little brother on a toy hoop in the basement of their Iowa City home. When she graduated to club ball, she didn’t start on the top-level teams.
But eventually, late-blooming talent and an iron will took over. The nervous little 9-year-old evolved from a no-name hooper to the state’s top recruit and then a 2,000-point scorer at Iowa.
"She’s probably the hardest worker I’ve encountered in my time on this earth, 18 years," said her brother, Nate. "I don’t think that she knows the magnitude of (how much I admire her)."
Disterhoft has 2,022 career points — 38 away from passing Cindy Haugejorde (1976-80) for No. 1 in Iowa’s record book. She’ll further chip away at Haugejorde's lead Thursday when Iowa plays Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
"To me, that’s always been a storybook type of fable," Bluder said of Disterhoft's Hawkeyes career. "You can’t write a script that’s more amazing or fitting than that."
It's March 4, 2012. Disterhoft and her parents, Jeff and Missy, pull into the Carver-Hawkeye Arena parking lot in Jeff's black Lexus SUV. They park, but they don't get out of the car right away.
Iowa assistant coach Jan Jensen had called the day before, after Disterhoft, then a junior at Iowa City West, led the Women of Troy to a Class 4A state title.
Bluder wanted to see Disterhoft the following day, Jensen said.
At that point she had offers from Iowa State, Drake, Creighton and Green Bay. Iowa had shown interest for a while but had not offered.
"I was at this crossroads, where it was either going to be an offer or they were going to call me in and turn me loose," Disterhoft recalled. "We had no idea which one it was going to be."
"We actually paused in the car in the parking lot," added Missy Disterhoft, "and said, 'Whatever happens, it will be fine.'"
This day, this moment in her dad’s black Lexus SUV, was a culmination of three bizarre, incredible, grueling and, at-times, devastating years for Disterhoft.
She finally hit 100 pounds as a high school freshman and rocketed up from 5-foot-9 to 6 feet later that summer. She had a forward’s size and a guard’s mind.
She started her entire sophomore year at West and averaged 15 points per game. She joined Iowa’s premier club team, All Iowa Attack, following that season. Colleges took notice for the first time.
Her best friend died that summer. Caroline Found was killed in a moped accident Aug. 11, 2011. She lost control and struck a tree on the way home from a church event. She was 17. Disterhoft heard the news at 3 a.m. and dry heaved in her bathroom for hours. Found’s mother, Ellyn, who Disterhoft was also close to, died 12 days later of pancreatic cancer.
The Iowa City community mourned that summer, fall and beyond.
That winter, Disterhoft averaged 16.4 points and led West to a basketball state title.
Now here Disterhoft was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, walking into Bluder’s office. Moment of truth.
"I was about to pass out," she said.
It was a powerful recruiting pitch by Bluder.
"(Bluder) basically whipped out the ('Dream Big') poster," Disterhoft said, smiling, "and was like, 'We want you to become a Hawkeye. We want you here. What do you think?'"
"Our jaws kind of dropped a little bit," Missy Disterhoft said. "We were so quiet about it and stunned that Bluder said, 'Well, what do you think?' And we admitted to her that we really didn’t know how this was going to go."
Disterhoft considered her options for a couple weeks. But there was never really any competition. She committed to Iowa in late March.
It's March 5, 2011. Dickson Jensen, president of the girls program at All Iowa Attack, sits among the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena for the girls' basketball state tournament. He's here to find players for his team. One sophomore with a blonde side ponytail — Disterhoft was her name — stands out.
West lost the 4A championship game to Des Moines East, but Jensen couldn’t have cared less. He wanted Disterhoft on All Iowa Attack. She was slim, sure. But he couldn't believe she hadn’t got much recruiting buzz yet.
He wanted to change that.
"I’ve been coaching youth basketball for almost 20 years, and you can tell when a player has that competitive edge," Jensen said. "She knows how to win. She’s a winner. You want those people around you and in your program.
"Some kids just do one thing all the time. Ally always did the right thing all the time."
Disterhoft made Jensen’s team in the days following the state title game.
As a straight-A student at West, Disterhoft, on the surface, had little time to play for All Iowa Attack. The program's based in Ames, a two-hour drive from Iowa City. But she did it anyway.
She’d finish practice at West around 5:30 p.m., dash across the state to Ames for club practice at 7:30 and do homework under the moonlight as her mom or dad drove the 130 miles back home.
"Once she sets her mind to something, she’s all-out," said Hailey Schneden, Disterhoft’s friend and Iowa teammate. "That’s how it is for everything in her life. She doesn’t do anything little. It’s full-blown everything."
The same can be said for her aspirations beyond basketball. After six daily hours at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Disterhoft’s usually at her second home, the Tippie College of Business. She’s a two-time academic All-American (so far), and she boasted the highest GPA (4.03) of any All-American last year. She’s writing essays while most teammates enjoy free time before road games, Schneden said.
She interned last summer in Chicago with the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. She already has another internship lined up with Barclays this summer in New York City.
As a role model, Disterhoft routinely stays after games to sign autographs and take pictures. She speaks at middle schools and elementary schools throughout eastern Iowa.
"My kids really look up to her," West head coach BJ Mayer said. "I’ve got two boys, and she takes time for all these little kids."
Her attitude was key in recovering from injuries, too.
Disterhoft ruptured the tendon in her right thumb before the final seven games of Iowa’s Sweet 16 run her sophomore year. She said she literally could not move the thumb. She had to have her wrist wrapped in a way that would prop her thumb up so she could, you know, hold the basketball.
The doctor didn’t say she shouldn't play; she said Disterhoft couldn’t play.
"There was no part of me that even thought about not playing for a second," Disterhoft said. "I just knew in my head that I was going to make it work."
She did. She averaged 12.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists over those seven games, without a functional right thumb.
"No matter what her limitation might be, Ally Disterhoft will find a way to get it done," Dickson Jensen said.
It's Feb. 26 of this year. Iowa just beat Wisconsin to close its regular season. Now, it's time to celebrate the three seniors — Disterhoft, Schneden and Alexa Kastanek.
Disterhoft said goodbye last Sunday to the arena where a young girl's dream actually came true. She stood at midcourt with her mom and dad as the PA announcer listed her accolades.
She high-fived Herky the Hawk. She blushed and laughed as junior teammate Chase Coley impersonated her cross-body shooting motion from the bench. Missy Disterhoft got on tiptoes to kiss her daughter on the cheek.
"My identity isn’t in basketball," Disterhoft said in February, imagining how senior day might feel. "Who I am is not just a basketball player. I’m a Christian. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. I’m a student. And while basketball is a huge part of who I am, it definitely doesn’t define me by any means.
"I’d like to think that even though I’ll be sad, there will be tears on senior night and whenever the season is over, I think we’ll be all right."
There were tears. She choked up several times while addressing the crowd.
Afterward, she hugged Schneden and Kastanek. Then she paused for a second and stole a glance around Carver-Hawkeye Arena before slowly walking off the court.
Disterhoft said Caroline Found still has a huge impact on her life. And before she died, Found wrote a column for West’s student paper about how people shouldn’t take things for granted — that they should stop and "smell the roses."
Maybe that’s what Disterhoft did during the pause. Maybe she was heeding Found’s advice. Maybe she was stopping to smell the roses.
Or, in this case, stopping to smell that hint of raspberry soft-serve ice cream one last time.
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.