IOWA CITY, Iowa – At least once a week, Iowa women’s basketball assistant coach Raina Harmon mutters the same goal to sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke.
Harmon will say it in passing, or in practice after a big play, with the hope that with every passing week the 6-foot-2 Stuelke has inched steadily closer to the goal itself.
“Future All-American,” Harmon says.
Ask any person associated with the women’s basketball team about Steulke and they’ll add on to the wealth of expectation that’s been placed on the product from nearby Cedar Rapids.
“We’ve got big hopes for her,” said longtime assistant head coach Jan Jensen.
A visit to Iowa’s film room displays a mural of Hawkeye players at the center of the room. At the center of the mural is All-American senior superstar guard Caitlin Clark. Splitting center with Clark is Stuelke. It’s yet another indication of how those around Stuelke view the young player’s trajectory.
As a freshman, Stuelke was named Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year and displayed a level of potential that sparked excitement about her future. This season Stuelke, now a starter, will take on a larger role for the No. 3 ranked Hawkeyes. She’ll be a critical part of an Iowa team looking to return to the national championship.
What you’ll find in conversation with Stuelke is a player ready to meet the moment, both this season and beyond. As another Iowa staffer put it simply, “she’s up next.”
“She has high hopes,” Harmon said. “She sees what Caitlin Clark has been able to do here. She understands that at some point during her career, Caitlin is no longer going to be here and she has an opportunity to be that next anchor of this program.”
For many top-50 high school recruits, the process of selecting the college where they’ll continue their basketball journey is typically filled with multiple campus visits, a series of online graphics that gradually narrow their choices down to a few schools, and an ounce of anticipatory drama. That wasn’t the case for Stuelke.
Stuelke grew up a Hawkeye fan, her family often attending basketball games where she watched players like All-Americans Megan Gustafson and Kathleen Doyle, and Tania Davis star for her home team. Stuelke began receiving interest from schools in the seventh grade, but she had her heart set on one.
When Iowa offered Stuelke in the seventh grade, she couldn’t believe it. She committed to Iowa in the spring of her freshman year of high school.
“Your dreams become reality,” said Stuelke, who was named Iowa Miss Basketball as a senior. “I think it’s really cool staying home.”
As it is for most college freshmen players, Stuelke’s first year at Iowa was about overcoming the learning curve. As a touted recruit on a team that was positioned to perform at a high level, Stuelke was forced to learn quickly, process and contribute.
“I grew up a lot,” said Stuelke, who averaged 6.5 points and 3.9 rebounds on 61% shooting as a freshman. “I just knew I had to come in and play my role really well. I think I did that.”
In her sophomore season, Stuelke has been slotted into the starting five. She’ll have the lofty assignment of helping to replace the production of forward Monika Czinano, who was a cornerstone of the program. Stuelke won’t have to do it alone, but her performance in the frontcourt will be vital to the Hawkeyes’ ceiling this season.
“I’m excited to get back out there and show people what I can do,” Steulke said.
Stuelke brings an athletic versatility to Iowa that, quite frankly, hasn’t been seen in Iowa City in years.
“I think one of the first days of our summer practice, when she first got on campus, I watched her for 10-15 seconds and I was like wow she’s a frickin’ athlete,” said senior guard Kate Martin.
“I think she’s one of the most athletic kids that I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” said Harmon, who is in her seventh season at Iowa. “She does a lot of things on the floor that the skill sets of other players just don’t allow them to have.”
Harmon remarked particularly at Stuelke’s ability to get off the floor in her second jump – defined as the ensuing leap after an initial jump against an opposing player.
“It’s uncanny. That’s such a small thing, you don’t really realize that, but that second jump, that’s why she’s able to get so many offensive rebounds,” Harmon said of Stuelke, who led Iowa in rebounds per minute played last season.
In the second quarter of a team scrimmage against a practice team of men, Stuelke crashed the glass to rebound a missed shot. In her first jump, she managed to tip the ball away from her defender before a second jump allowed her to secure the ball and elevate for a putback.
“See what I mean?” Harmon could be heard shouting from the Iowa bench.
That versatility also shows as Stuelke is able to operate effectively as either a back-to-the-basket center or driving from the elbow. With time, there’s confidence that she can conquer the third level: scoring beyond the arc.
“If she’s able to become a 35-40% 3-point shooter, you’re not going to be able to stop her,” Harmon said.
When it comes to unlocking the potential so many see in Stuelke, a common key identified by those around her is confidence. While teammates and coaches alike have expressed an utmost confidence in the burgeoning talent’s ability, Stuelke has been on a journey to find that confidence within.
“[Hannah’s] going to be a special player. it’s just getting her to believe that in herself, and getting her to believe what she can contribute to this team because we really need her.” Clark told the media in June.
In the offseason, Stuelke was tasked with improving her jump shot as well as her performance from the free-throw line where she shot under 50% her freshman year. She worked on her game often with former Hawkeyes star Davis, who was hired as a player development coach in May.
Stuelke’s calculation was simple: more reps equals more confidence and comfort on the court.
“This summer, I saw her in the gym a ton. Just form shooting,” Harmon said.
There was an early sign this summer that Stuelke’s confidence was beginning to take hold. During Iowa’s European tour in August, the team played multiple games in Croatia. During one of those games, Stuelke hit a free-throw hot streak.
“At first, she doesn’t give us anything back, she’s just, ‘I’m so focused on those free throws because I know that has been a pain for me,’ ” Harmon recalled. “Then she gets six in a row – looks at us – seven, and then [after] eight she busts out in full dance mode. Bench is going crazy.”
It was a welcome sign of release from Stuelke whose off-court personality had always matched the personality she showed that afternoon overseas.
“It was just wild being able to see her unleash her full personality and embrace the fact that, like, ‘yeah, I can do this thing,’ and watch her team embrace that with her. That confidence is coming,” Harmon said.
In Iowa’s exhibition game against Division III Clarke University, Stuelke revealed a flash of her potential, scoring a game-high 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting and 10 rebounds. She was 1-of-2 from 3-point range and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line.
If you watch Stuelke in practice, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who is visibly feeling the pressure heading into the season.
“The kid is always walking around with a smile,” Harmon said.
While the weight of expectation that has been placed on Stuelke and her future in the program is considerable, there’s no other position she’d rather stand in. Now, she’s focused on working to prove those believers right.
“Coach [Lisa] Bluder always says pressure is a privilege,” Stuelke said.
The work ethic required to reach those expectations has never been a problem for Stuelke, who has always been engrossed in the process of improving her game. As a kid, if there was a choice between playing something else or basketball, she always opted to get shots up.
“I didn’t really want to [play]. I wanted to get better at basketball,” Stuelke said. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
That hard work was rewarded last season when Stuelke was named the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year.
“When Coach Bluder told us, maybe I cried a little bit,” Stuelke said. “You work so hard every day. You get in the gym and you don’t know if people notice. Just having that confirmation gave me a little boost of confidence that I needed.”
Stuelke is not without her dose of external motivation, either. While she earned the nod for Sixth Player of the Year, Stuelke was still left off the conference’s five-player All-Freshman team, which left her a little salty.
“Our fans, they have a lot of expectations for me, but I think outside of that a lot of people don’t even mention my name, so I think I have a little chip on my shoulder,” she said.
The bond Stuelke and Harmon forged when Stuelke was in high school was immediate. While most of that bond was built on basketball, they had the shared experience of being Black women.
Harmon has played an important role in Stuelke’s experience at Iowa. When Stuelke walked onto the Iowa campus as a freshman, where the Black student population represented just 3% percent of the school’s 31,000 students, it was important to Harmon to work to create an environment that allowed Stuelke to be herself.
Stuelke was raised by her mother and stepfather, whom she refers to as her father, both of whom are white. Stuelke’s biological father lives in Antigua. Stuelke said she never felt like she was different growing up in Cedar Rapids, adding that she went to a diverse high school before arriving in Iowa City.
“When she comes to campus, I just want her to know there’s going to be some experiences that she doesn’t have to feel like she’s alone in,” Harmon said. “There’s certain cultural things that we share, and I just want her to know those things don’t have to disappear when you leave the comfort of your home. You can bring all of you and you’re going to be included in this space.”
Stuelke credits Harmon for helping find her identity as a Black woman.
“Knowing that other part of myself, she helped bring that out of me a little,” Stuelke said.
“Whenever I need something, I know I can trust her and I can go to her.”
When Stuelke wanted to get her hair braided, Harmon sent her to a place where she could get them done. She told where Stuelke could find a local soul food restaurant.
Stuelke’s presence for the Hawkeyes continues a legacy of Black women excelling in the program. In 1983, Iowa hired C. Vivian Stringer, who was coach for 12 seasons and led the Hawkeyes to six Big Ten titles and a Final Four appearance in 1993. The program’s earliest All-Americans were Black players, such as Michelle Edwards, Franthea Price and Toni Foster. Jolette Law, former Iowa point guard and current assistant coach for South Carolina, was recently inducted into the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame.
“From a national or outsider’s perspective, people would say that’s not necessarily representative of Iowa women’s basketball,” Harmon said. “You look back to Vivian’s era and it’s like, ‘sure it is.’ ”
Whether she’s hooping for the Hawkeyes in puffs or simply able to let loose at practice, Harmon is assured that Stuelke is able to bring her full self to the team. Harmon’s hope is that once Stuelke feels a certain level of comfort, she’ll be able to share with her other Black teammates like Kennise Johnson, in her freshman season at Iowa.
“So now Kennise feels like she is valued and has her voice and space in the program, too,” Harmon said.
According to Bluder, the jury is still out on what type of player Stuelke will ultimately become. Much of that seems to rest on just how much Stuelke is able to develop an identity outside of the paint.
Bluder drew a potential comparison to Atlanta Dream forward and former Michigan great Naz Hillmon, one of the fiercest interior frontcourt players in the country during her tenure with the Wolverines.
“Naz was just an inside player. I think [Hannah] can become a better inside player and really abuse people with her quickness and agility,” Bluder said. “Or she’ll be the next great power forward and beat people off the drive and be able to get in and rebound from the perimeter.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Bluder added.
If Stuelke is able to play up to her potential, she’s confident she’ll one day leave Iowa City with a legacy uniquely her own. When asked who she hopes her game will most closely compare to at its peak, Stuelke revealed her belief in herself.
“Me,” Steulke replied. “I just want to be the best version of me.”