How Caitlin Clark’s Start in West Des Moines Built a Homegrown Star at Iowa

Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, where Caitlin Clark first stamped her legacy. (Photography by Miles Johnson)

It was a football game at Dowling Catholic High School. The student section was in a frenzy. After the game, there were two students accompanied by the principal who helped clean up the aftermath.


One of those students would turn into a household name and consensus best player in women’s college basketball. That student would go on to sell out preseason games of over 55,000 people and become the University of Iowa’s all-time leading scorer. That student was Caitlin Clark.


“She helped me and a couple of others clean up the student section of the bleachers one night after our student section had left a mess,” Dowling Catholic Principal Matt Meendering said. “That was the kind of kid she was, and is. It’s about leaving something better than when you got there. And I think that’s what she’s trying to do now.”


Dowling Catholic was her former high school. Clark’s family has a long legacy of being at the Catholic school located in her hometown of West Des Moines. Her younger brother, Colin Clark, is a recent 2023 graduate, her older brother, Blake Clark, was the starting quarterback, and her grandfather, Bob Nizzi, was their former head football coach.


Dowling Catholic’s Athletic Director, Tom Wilson, shared with me the pride Clark’s former high school has for her rise to collegiate superstardom.


“We’re certainly proud of how she’s representing us,” Wilson said. “She’s representing the University of Iowa, women’s basketball in general. All of those things that you’re seeing from her, the roots of it are with how she was raised, and that includes from her family, but also where she went to school, and how she was brought out. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of things to make sure to do that we have to do on our end, to make sure people don’t forget that she’s from here. I just think she just keeps bringing a positive light on our school and our athletic department.”


In high school, she was highly recruited as a five-star recruit and ranked the fourth-best player in the country in her senior year. She was so good that according to her former high school coach, Kristin Meyer, a Big 10 scout said that she could’ve started for their college team at 14 years old.


Safe to say her offer list was overflowing. Nonetheless, she decided to stick to her roots and play for her home state, over powerhouses such as Notre Dame and Texas.


Clark has accomplished many firsts not only in women’s basketball, but college basketball in general. Since 2020-2021, the West Des Moines native recorded four 40-point games against Top 10 AP teams, notched a 40-point triple-double in the 2023 Final Four, and tallied over 900 points and 300 assists in a single season. All have never been done in NCAA Division 1 history. 


Clark gained widespread fame due to her stellar 2023 March Madness tournament. Her three-point range, matched with her next-level vision and nose for rebounding is what has made her must-watch television. 


Clark’s decision to stay in her native state only elevated her legendary status in the Iowa community. Rodney ‘Rod’ Clark, 69, has lived in Clark County, about 45 minutes south of West Des Moines for over four decades, and he told me that Clark is the reason why he watches women’s basketball today.


“I’ve always watched it [referring to basketball], but I watched it most since she started playing,” Rod said. “I love when they put two people on her and two people can’t guard her and she can still make them. Some of the shots she makes are unbelievable. I think it’s going to get more young girls in basketball to say, ‘Look at what we can do.”


Rod is a pillar of the Clark County community. He was the first and only two-time firefighter of the year. Unfortunately, he suffered a head injury on the job after falling on ice, otherwise, he’d still be active.


“I would love to go up there and watch her in person, but I got some brain damage so I can’t take the noise,” Rod told me. “Otherwise I’d have a season ticket for her.”


While her talent on the court is undeniable, her influence off the court may proceed to her greatness on the basketball hardware. Clark is known for giving back to her former high school and community. Leaving something better than she left it, was how she was raised.


“She stays connected to Dowling Catholic girls basketball,” Head Coach Kristin Meyer said. “We had a team retreat [this fall], and she sent in a video about the tradition of girls basketball here, what playing for Dowling Catholic meant for her, and what she hopes it means for the current players. It was really neat because she’s always willing to work and be involved with our youth programs.”


Clark’s character has stayed the same since high school according to Coach Meyer. The only difference now is her increased maturity and her growing brand as an athlete and role model for girls across the nation. 


This sentiment reigns true for Ellie Olson and Layla Trytten, both juniors on Dowling Catholic’s girl’s basketball team. They’ve witnessed Clark’s impact on basketball in West Des Moines all year round.


“Every day, you’ll see people just having a Caitlin Clark shirt,” Olson said. “We have camp in the summer and the amount of girls that had a Caitlin Clark shirt is crazy.”


For the girl’s basketball team, Clark’s competitive edge, on and off the court, may have been the biggest inheritance they’ve taken in the post-Clark era. 


“I think one thing she has impacted in the Dowling basketball community is her motivation to win every single game, Olson said. “That competitive fire she brought not only on the court, but off the court is an inspiration to not only us, but little kids.”


Trytten agreed wholeheartedly with her teammate. 


“I think watching her play, especially being so successful, has really motivated not only high school girls to be hard working, but the younger kids too,” Trytten said. “I feel like she’s making everybody more involved in basketball and want to play.”


Although Clark’s mesmerizing three-point shooting and scoring ability gained her national attention, her elite vision is what truly sets her apart. Her high-level playmaking serves as another testament to her prowess to uplift others around her, as attested by her former high school coach. 


“Her core vision is what separates her,” Coach Meyer said. “She can see the game almost in slow motion compared to other people. I think she is the best passer out of the pick-and-roll situation. Her passing ability, because of her vision, is second to none.”


Clark’s assist per-game numbers have increased since her freshman season. During her first year, she averaged seven assists, but during her junior year, it jumped to 8.6. In the 2023 March Madness tournament, this number rose to 10. With all the attention she commands from defenses because of her scoring touch, her playmaking is what pushed the Iowa Hawkeyes to the Final Four.


Regardless of how the season plays out, Clark is the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft. Similarly to the French sensation Victor Wembanyama, WNBA owners and general managers will look at Clark as a lifeline to resurrect their franchises. 


But Clark’s impact on the game is much bigger than becoming the No. 1 pick. She has transcended the game of women’s college basketball to new heights.  According to iSpot.tv, Clark’s 2022-23 junior campaign helped ESPN’s networks double their adult impressions from 155.6 million to 342.5 million. And this season, she dropped a 30-point triple-double in front of a record-setting 55,642 fans in an exhibition game on Oct. 15 at Kinnick Stadium, home of the University of Iowa’s football team.


In the 2023 Final Four, the championship match surpassed 9.9 million viewers. This doubled the 2022 championship of just over 4.4 million. This adds more validity to Principal Meendering’s statement that Clark is the type of kid who leaves something better than she found it. 


Whether contributing to her teammates’ career highs in points on the court—such as Hannah Stuelke, Kate Martin, and Sharon Goodman—or off the court, she took the time to send a video to her former high school basketball team about Dowling Catholic’s values, Clark is leaving an enduring impact on women’s basketball. Remarkably, the same kid who stayed after everyone else to pick up trash at a high school football game hasn’t changed.