This is the nature of sports rivalries, isn’t it? We’re supposed to vilify our opponents, particularly those who excel, right? Emotionally invest in their downfall?

Yet, Caitlin Clark continues to amass scoring records, dominate TV ratings, saturate pop culture, and secure victories. Many of her accomplishments bring a fleeting smile to my face — momentarily. Then, I can’t help but grimace.

For some time now, I’ve been grappling with what college sports rivalry, specifically the Cy-Hawk rivalry between Iowa State and Iowa, means in the context of evaluating Clark’s impact. Does her rise lift all boats? Or is it more akin to a zero-sum game, with Clark’s emergence conclusively settling the debate about the state’s top women’s basketball program?

If it’s the latter, I find myself wanting to harbor resentment towards Clark. After all, through her talent and celebrity, she has dealt blows to Iowa State, a team I’ve passionately supported throughout my life. Isn’t that what sports rivals do? Demonize their adversaries, particularly the most successful ones? Invest emotionally in their downfall so that their potential failures are all the more satisfying?

The question of which program reigns supreme has lingered in my mind for years, predating Clark’s arrival in Iowa City. Women’s basketball, narrowly, has been the Cyclones’ sport that I’ve been most invested in since my time at Iowa State from 2001 to 2005. In fact, the only instance in ten years of working nights and weekends that I lost my professional composure was during a women’s basketball game: on the late evening of March 28, 2009, as Iowa State staged an improbable last-minute comeback in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. It was a moment of intense emotion, and I couldn’t help but erupt with excitement when the game swung in our favor.

Both Bill Fennelly and Lisa Bluder have helmed their respective teams at Iowa State and Iowa since the mid-90s and early 2000s. Until recently, they had coached their teams to remarkably similar records of success. Iowa State perhaps had a slight edge in NCAA tournament achievements, having reached the Elite Eight a couple of times. Each team had secured victories in conference tournaments, and when they faced off against each other, the home team consistently emerged victorious. They competed fiercely for recruits, including Caitlin Clark from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic, who had considered Notre Dame, Iowa State, and Iowa as her final choices. One could make compelling arguments for either side, but the reality was that both programs were formidable, albeit not dominant, and were a joy to watch and support.

However, Clark has undeniably disrupted this equilibrium, even as Iowa State fielded some strong teams. The turning point came early, in Clark’s fifth game as a Hawkeye. With Iowa State holding a commanding 73-56 lead going into the fourth quarter, the game seemed all but decided. Yet, the final score painted a different picture: Iowa 82, Iowa State 80, with Clark notching an impressive 34 points and sinking the game-winning 3-pointer.

But a single clutch shot or standout performance is par for the course in sports. What sets Clark apart is her transcendent impact — on Hawkeye history, women’s college basketball, college basketball as a whole, and even sports history. She unequivocally stands as the central figure of this year’s March Madness, relegating other remarkable NCAA tournament achievements, such as Audi Crooks’ 40-point display in a thrilling Cyclone comeback win or the men’s basketball team’s journey to the Sweet 16, to the sidelines.

Despite the Cyclones’ promising performance with a young team this season, I’ve remained preoccupied with the in-state dynamics. Growing up, I experienced firsthand the frustration of enduring a prolonged period of Hawkeye dominance, with Iowa seemingly snatching up top recruits one after another to maintain their program’s momentum after Clark departs for the pros this spring. It’s been nearly two decades since Iowa State last tasted victory in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. While casual fans celebrate the staggering attendance figures at Clark’s games this season, they overlook the consistently high attendance numbers that Iowa State has maintained over 23 seasons, averaging over 9,000 fans per game.

In this narrative, Caitlin Clark emerges as the antagonist. I want to harbor animosity towards her. Yet, I find myself unable to muster such feelings. Her extraordinary talent and achievements are simply too awe-inspiring. I’ve found myself captivated by her buzzer-beaters against Indiana and Michigan State, her seemingly impossible assists, her triumph over South Carolina, and the exhilarating viewership numbers that not only spotlight Clark but also elevate the sport as a whole. I can’t take seriously the feeble arguments about her on-court demeanor. Clark is undeniably great, and I relish watching her play.

There won’t be any Hawkeye paraphernalia, including Clark’s jersey, making its way into our household anytime soon. My grimaces haven’t dissipated. However, she’s a rival I can’t help but admire.

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