BHS girls close out 2023 with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, Burlington High School junior Sophie Brown grabbed her No. 22 Hawkeye basketball shirt and met her teammates in the BHS parking lot.

A few hours later, that shirt would bear Caitlin Clark’s signature.

Normally, the girls basketball team would spend their practice time in Carl Johannsen Gymnasium, but this time was different. Instead, they were heading to Iowa City to watch the Iowa Hawkeye women’s basketball team practice for their upcoming game against Michigan. (Iowa won 76-73.)

Brown was determined to get an autograph from Clark, which she accomplished just moments after the reigning National Player of the Year, at the close of practice, thanked the Grayhounds for coming, but, like her teammates, she was also there to learn.

“I know everybody can come and watch the games, but what about watching how they build the games, how practice goes,” BHS head coach Adriana Mafra said.

So she reached out to Lisa Bluder, Iowa’s head coach, to arrange the visit. Mafra’s daughter, Peoria High School senior Aaliyah Guyton, signed with the Hawkeyes in September.

“I wanted (the Grayhounds) to watch (the Hawkeyes), the intensity, because you see how the Iowa girls basketball program has been successful the last few years and then what it takes to get there,” Mafra said. “It’s very intense; they’re very disciplined. … We would’ve been practicing at this time at home. This is like mental practice.”

Mafra, an Olympic Bronze Medalist whose professional basketball career includes having played for the Brazilian National Team and having represented Brazil in five Olympic games, brings a sense of rigor to BHS’s girls basketball program that has helped the Grayhounds amass a total of five wins this season, already exceeding their total number of wins last year, but watching the No. 4 ranked Hawkeyes prepare for their next game offered her players insight into what it takes to get to the next level.

“I’m very proud of them, but we can always do better,” Mafra said. “I just have a lot of fun trying to pass on to them what I learned from basketball, not just basketball-wise, but the other things that basketball has given to my life as far as team skills, leadership, resilience. My main goal as a coach is to not just help the girls develop as athletes, but as people as well.”

The girls watched as the Hawkeyes encouraged their teammates from the sidelines and communicated with each other on the court. They saw how the college athletes practiced new plays and worked through scenarios they would likely encounter in their upcoming game, and they saw the level of commitment, discipline and teamwork that collegiate sports demand.

“It was a really cool experience watching them practice,” sophomore Mylee Stiefel said. “It was great because they were like role models and we can take things that they do at their practice and bring it to ours and hopefully practice a little bit better from now on.”

Freshman Kinsley Peterson agreed.

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After the Hawkeyes finished their practice, the Grayhounds filed onto the court, catching basketballs displaying the Hawkeye logo passed to them by Iowa assistant coach Raina Harmon.

Their grins stretched ear to ear as they practiced shooting before breaking up into small teams to scrimmage while their coaches talked with Bluder and associate head coach Jan Jensen.

“It was great playing down on Carver,” Stiefel said. “You don’t get to do that every day, so it was awesome.”

“It was so fun and we’re so thankful to have this opportunity,” said sophomore Daphne Brown.

The Iowa women’s basketball program has served as an inspiration to young girls everywhere as the team’s success continues to draw national attention and large crowds to a sport whose spectatorship in previous years might be considered minimal when compared to its male counterpart.

That increased interest is a trend the Grayhounds would like to see carry over to the high school level.

“When we have more support, we tend to play better because their energy comes to us and it just builds up when we’re playing,” Stiefel said.

The Grayhounds will next play at Washington on Friday before facing off against West Burlington/Notre Dame on Saturday at West Burlington High School.

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