More than just Caitlin Clark. Suburban girls have plenty of stars to look up to in basketball

For those who grew up in the 1980s and '90s, their basketball idols included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Dr. J.

This went for boys and girls alike as there were few — if any — opportunities to watch women on television.

Now? It's a whole new world.

“I kind of grew up in the Michael Jordan era, so I think everybody was inspired by Michael Jordan and (the Bulls’) run,” said Dave Yates, who has coached Fremd’s girls squad for over 20 years and played collegiately at Elmhurst College, now called Elmhurst University. “Now, women’s sports is catching fire. It’s on TV way more, there’s bigger crowds. So that's pretty exciting.”

Ask 100 of girls today whom they look up to and most — if not all — will at least mention Caitlin Clark, the Iowa sharp-shooter who is just 39 points away from becoming the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer.

Yet, thanks to ESPN, streaming services and social media there are plenty of others who are inspiring Illinois’ top players. We set out to find out why certain players resonated as well as if some of the area’s top girls have been able to improve their games because of what they've witnessed.

The answers were quite fascinating.

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Iowa guard Caitlin Clark drives to the basket past Northwestern guard Caroline Lau in Evanston. Associated Press/Jan. 31, 2024

Three girls chose Clark as the player they most admire. And why not? The Hawkeyes’ senior can drain shots from 25, 30, even 35 feet away. She's also deadly off the dribble, a fierce defender and fearless in crunch time.

Best of all, she seems to understand the importance of being a role model.

“I admire her consistency,” said Downers Grove North's Hope Sebek, a senior who plans to attend Iowa in the fall. “And even if she's not making shots on the perimeter, she goes to the rim. She shows it’s OK if you don't make every single shot. You still should shoot them.”

Said Barrington senior Maddy Ziebarth: “She's clutch in all the moments she needs to be. She'll make a lot of shots when they're tied. Like they were playing Michigan State earlier this year, she hit a 3 to win the game.”

Yep. A step-back 3 from 5 feet behind the line, no less.

So what about that range?

“It's insane,” Sebek said. “It’s truly unbelievable. I don’t even know if she understands it either. But you can tell she’s just so confident. That's what stands out most.”

  Downers Grove North’s Hope Sebek steals the ball from Palatine’s Lindsay Plourde during the Bill Neibch girls basketball Holiday Classic in Wheaton. Joe Lewnard/, Dec. 27, 2023

Schaumburg’s Grace Schluckbier notices Clark’s composure, a trait the senior tries to emulate.

“I would say I’m a very composed basketball player,” said Schluckbier, who received some Division III offers but will try to play club ball at Michigan State next year. “I got it from her by watching her play. So that Ohio State game (on Jan. 21), even though they lost, she stayed composed through the battle.”

None of these three could attend Iowa’s sold-out game at Northwestern on Jan. 31, but the visit did leave one lasting memory for Schluckbier.

“I did see a bunch of videos of little girls behind her, and how she signed their souvenirs,” Schluckbier said. “I thought that was really cool.”

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Marquette's Mackenzie Hare drives to the basket against UConn's Aaliyah Edwards during the second half in Milwaukee. Associated Press

Downers Grove North sophomore Ady Fanta loves watching Marquette’s Kenzie Hare, who played at Bartlett High School before transferring to Naperville North. Hare, who went through the same AAU program as Fanta, finished her prep career with 2,494 points and 398 3-pointers — fourth highest in state history.

“It’s inspiring to know that someone went through the program and got so far,” Fantas said. “She always was a good player, but she had to work a lot to get noticed.”

Hare has started all 24 games for Marquette and is averaging 14.5 points while hitting 45.3% of her 3-pointers.

But the numbers aren’t what impress Fanta most.

“It's just the way she carries herself,” Fanta said. “Honestly, she’s always there. Like somebody falls, she runs towards them. She’s just so inspiring towards the kid community. You can tell she really wants to be on the floor.”

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Stanford's Cameron Brink celebrates after scoring against the Colorado in the semifinals of the 2022 Pac-12 women's tournament in Las Vegas. Associated Press/March 4, 2022

Stanford’s Cameron Brink — perhaps somewhat surprisingly — was chosen by not one but two girls.

Not that Brink isn't worthy. She’s the Cardinal's all-time leader in blocks, was named WBCA defensive player of the year in 2023, and inked an NIL deal with New Balance to become the first female basketball player on the brand's athlete roster.

Oh, and she averages 17.6 points a game and knocks down 91.8% of her free throws — fifth best in the country.

What’s surprising is she plays on the West Coast. But, again, that goes to show how much the women’s game has grown.

  Fremd’s Brynn Eshoo cuts past Hersey’s Annika Manthy in the Mid Suburban League title game in Palatine. John Starks/

Barrington’s Molly O'Riordan and Fremd's Brynn Eshoo are similar to the 6-foot-4 Brink in that they use their size to affect the game but also understand the importance of staying versatile.

“We play very similarly,” said Eshoo, who will play at the University of Portland next season. “She plays very hard on both sides of the court. She has a midrange game — pull-up jumpers — but also puts it on the floor and shoots as well.”

Said O’Riordan, who will play at the University of Dayton: “She’s definitely a big rebounder, so I’ve tried to improve my rebounding game — especially offensively. I try to read where the ball’s going off the basket and then finish. She’s also a really good free-throw shooter. I don’t imitate her free throws, but I work on them because I want to have a percentage like her.”

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Utah guard Kennady McQueen (24) and Texas guard Audrey Warren (31) chase the ball during the second round of the NCAA women's tournament. Associated Press/March 20, 2022

Fremd’s Ella Todd is a 6-foot junior guard who is committed to the University of Utah. She mentioned Caitlin Clark at first but also picked a couple of her future teammates in Kennady McQueen and Gianna Kneepkens. Unfortunately, Kneepkens is out for the season with an injury, so we had Todd focus on what she loves about McQueen’s game.

“She’s a great defender and also a really good shooter,” Todd said. “I think I can do that too, so that's why it’s fun to watch her and learn from her.”

The two did meet during a campus visit.

“Very down to earth,” Todd said. “All the players were. They were very genuine people and great to talk to. Definitely very smart and well spoken.”

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Schaumburg girls basketball player Audrey Schluckbier (12). Courtesy of Schaumburg High School

Perhaps the most interesting answer came from Audrey Schluckbier. The Barrington senior spoke about how she loves the way Michigan State plays under coach Robyn Fralick.

“They were not playing very well (in the past),” Schluckbier said. “Their new coach really stepped up and they are amazing now.”

The Spartans are looking to finish above .500 in the Big Ten for just the second time in seven years and have a chance to finish with their best overall winning percentage in 13 years. Michigan State (17-6, 7-5 Big Ten) is at Michigan today.

Michigan State coach Robyn Fralick gestures during the second half against Michigan in East Lansing, Michigan. Associated Press/Jan. 27, 2024

Schluckbier, who will attend MSU in the fall, has been rooting for the Spartans all her life — and for good reason.

“My parents met at Michigan State,” she said, “so it was kind of like, 'Oh, I’m a Michigan State fan!'”

Schluckbier loves how MSU’s players seem to work harder under Fralick. It inspires her to do the same, especially defensively.

“I would say I’m a defender first and then I’m the one that calms down everyone as a point guard,” Schluckbier said. “So when I’m a defender I can go crazy and it can be my thing, but I’m also doing it for my team. So I think her aggressive coaching has (made the players realize), 'Yeah, I can do that too.'”

The coaches

  Barrington girls basketball coach Babbi Barreiro celebrates her 500th career victory with her team following the Fillies’ 70-64 win over Prospect Tuesday. Joe Lewnard/

Barrington’s Babbi Barreiro and Schaumburg’s Jacquie Strauch both raved about legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who retired with 1,096 victories — the most in college basketball history.

“I can remember being a little kid — like a fifth-, sixth-grader — and being like, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be, that’s who I want to be around,'” said Strauch, who is in her eighth year with the Saxons. “When you realize you’re not good enough to go there, that’s OK too. I just remember being in awe of what was happening.”

Barreiro has had quite a run herself, racking up 520 wins in 31 seasons. She is just one of four Mid-Suburban League coaches to surpass the 500-win plateau.

Barreiro picked up plenty of things from the tenacious, demanding Summitt — who passed away at age 64 in 2016 — and loved how she was always there for her players.

“She could scare the heck out of you just by looking at you across the gym,” Barreiro said. “If you read any of the books about her, that’s what they say. Yet all of them knew that if they needed anything or if there was a situation, she had their back and she would take care of them.”

Barreiro also heaped praise upon Ken Grams and Doug Millstone, her softball coaches at Elk Grove High School in the 1980s.

“I learned a lot of that by watching Mr. Grams and Mr. Millstone and how they treated us as athletes,” Barreiro said. “The focus was on us as people first. That’s how you learn to take your athleticism and apply it towards the good of the team.”

Stephan Bolt leads one of the best teams of 2024, the 28-3 Downers Grove North Trojans. The 39-year-old played collegiately at Lipscomb University and Lewis University. He remembers watching some of the pioneers of the WNBA when it came into existence in 1997.

“I’m a huge shoe guy,” he said. “So my connection to the women's side was Sheryl Swoopes. She was the first woman to have her own shoe. The WNBA was kind of coming around when I was a kid. Lisa Leslie could dunk. I remember the WNBA getting going and not knowing at all I’d be coaching girls basketball.”

He loves it because of how purely the sport is played.

“I love the fundamental part of the women’s game much more than the men’s game,” Bolt said. “To me, it’s way more fun to coach.

“The men’s side, if you’re looking for athletic, above-the-rim-type stuff, they can offer you that. But I mean, when it comes down to playing basketball and the skill set you need, these girls are incredibly talented.”

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