PJ Sweeney had no clue how meaningful those 10 minutes were.
The head coach of Clear Creek Amana’s girls basketball was back in the training room. He’d just finished addressing his team after its Dec. 19 loss to South Tama, and he was getting packed up to leave.
It was a bitter way to enter winter break. The Clippers could have — and should have — won. They missed 14 of 27 shots from the free throw line … and they lost by nine points, 71-62. Freshman Karsyn Stratton, CCA’s leading scorer, sunk just 2 of 9 from the charity stripe.
After 10 minutes, Sweeney finished up in the training room and walked back out to the empty gym to close up and head home for the holidays.
He wasn’t expecting a call from assistant coach Alex Schultejans the next morning. Apparently, something happened while he was in the training room.
“I come to find out (Stratton) was shooting free throws out there after our talk,” Sweeney said after CCA practice Wednesday. “And I was out here doing some other things and I come to find out she was there for about 10 minutes — and then until, finally, her mom came out and said, ‘Karsyn, you’re coming home.’ That’s just the kind of kid she is. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she was in here the next morning, shooting free throws.”
“I was so mad,” Stratton added. “I needed to play better than that. I’ve got to knock down my shots. I was just angry and I have to make those, you know? They’re free.”
There’s Karsyn Stratton for you. A kid who beats her coach to the gym for practice. A freshman who starts on a team with eight upperclassmen. A 5-foot-8 shooting guard who elevates like a college freshman. A 15-year-old whose ability to knife through defenses belies her age.
She leads the 5-4 Clippers with 13.4 points per game, which ranks eighth among freshmen in the state.
“She can do anything; she’s all over the place,” senior guard Be DeShaw said.
Karsyn, the second-oldest of four Stratton kids, has been waiting in the wings for her arrival on the high school stage her whole life. Sweeney’s seen it first-hand the past few years.
He coached Stratton the summer after seventh grade on the Blenders, a club team he created with former Regina coach Matt Bolger. Then he’d see her at nearly every CCA game — home or away — while she was a middle schooler, patiently anticipating her opportunity.
“It was one of those things where she would get very upset at mom and dad if they couldn’t get her there to a road game,” Sweeney laughed. “She wanted to be in the stands and be very supportive. She was very engaged and into it. She would ask me questions — she just wanted to know exactly what was happening.”
With her club ball-crafted skill set, Stratton’s odds to make varsity as a freshman were good, but to start? Not so much — at least not immediately. The Clippers returned five players with varsity starting experience and eight upperclassmen, overall.
But in CCA’s first game of the season, Stratton was starting alongside three seniors and fellow freshman Meagan Harvey.
She scored a team-high 16 points in a 62-47 win against the Lady Spartans.
“I’ve always wanted to play varsity as a freshman, and you’ve just got to work hard to do that, you know?” said Stratton, her shy but sturdy voice poking through a warm smile. “It’s been a pleasure so far. I’m hoping to keep it going.”
Stratton now plays AAU ball with the Minnesota Fury 2019 team, led by Marion coach Corby Laube. She and Marion’s Kayla Laube are the only freshmen on the roster, which is otherwise filled with sophomores, including Iowa City West’s Cailyn Morgan, Marion’s Sophie Willette and Randi Wright, and Maquoketa Valley’s Sam Wall.
She averaged 4.1 points on a team-high 42 percent clip in 21 games during the circuit last spring and summer.
Stratton’s a four-sport athlete — also volleyball, softball and track — but she wants to play basketball in college and looks up to Notre Dame’s program. She said she hasn’t had any contact with colleges yet. That’ll likely change in the next AAU circuit, when coaches will come to watch her rising-junior teammates and see her in the process. One of the benefits of playing with older girls.
“She’s special,” Sweeney said. “One of those players who you don’t have come along too often. It’s only a matter of time before college coaches notice.
“I could see a lot of options coming down the line.”
A long way down the line. Remember, Stratton’s 15. College decisions won’t come for a while. Until then, she has the rest of this season and all of the next three years to grow.
It’s not at all crazy to think that, with Stratton and Harvey playing until 2020, CCA could steadily rise in the Class 4A ranks.
“Any time you have two strong freshmen come in and make an impact on your program, yeah, the future’s bright,” Sweeney said. “And also, just like I tell everybody else, the future’s bright — but I also think it’s bright right now.”
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.