A Passing Of The Torch: Gustafson's Impact Is Still Felt
Monika Czinano remembers the hug.
Czinano, Iowa’s sophomore center, spent last season as the understudy to national player of the year Megan Gustafson.
Which is a nice education for a player in her first season.
It was the March 3 game against Northwestern, Gustafson’s final regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Gustafson was checking out of the game for the last time, and Czinano was checking in.
The two players hugged as Gustafson received a standing ovation.
"I gave her a hug and we were both starting to tear up,” Czinano said. “I have to go in and play and she said, 'This is like me passing on the torch.' That was, like, really special, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ and then I had to go play.
“Carver’s cheering, and she’s like, ‘This is me passing on the torch.’ And it was just a really surreal moment.”
Gustafson, Iowa’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, will be back at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for Sunday’s game against Michigan State. Her No. 10 jersey will be retired in a post-game ceremony.
Gustafson is playing professionally in Hungary this winter after spending a summer with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings. The Hawkeyes, Big Ten Tournament champions last season who reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, are nationally ranked — No. 19 in the Associated Press poll and No. 21 in the USA Today coaches poll — and tied for the Big Ten lead as the conference season reaches the halfway point.
“It’s still fresh in our minds, it’s still fresh in the fans’ minds,” senior guard Makenzie Meyer said of Gustafson’s brilliant season and the Hawkeyes’ run that went with it.
It was that run, Czinano said, that has fueled this season’s success.
“Now we have a lot of experience that we have from last year,” she said. “Playing in these big games, big settings. I think it fuels us now. It’s not, ‘These lights are too bright,’ because we’ve been under the lights before.
“We’ve all been there now.”
Gustafson was one of three seniors from last season’s team — forward Hannah Stewart and guard Tania Davis were honored at the Hawkeyes’ game against Clemson earlier this season — but that run that caught so much national attention can be felt in this season’s team.
All five starters — Czinano, Meyer, and guards Kathleen Doyle, Alexis Sevillian and Amanda Ollinger — were part of last season’s success.
It’s why they are looking forward to Sunday.
“She’s such a great person, and a great player, too,” Doyle said of Gustafson. “We share the same work ethic. We both take pride in playing hard every single possession. It was fun playing with someone like that.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder was hesitant to talk much about Sunday’s game when she met with the media earlier in the week — the Hawkeyes still had to play Ohio State on Thursday night, a 77-68 win.
The one thing is, I’m excited to see Megan again,” Bluder said.
Bluder and her staff FaceTime regularly with Gustafson, but the coach said having her back for Sunday’s ceremony is special.
“For me, it’s like, ‘I get to see her again,’” Bluder said.
Gustafson’s biggest impact within the team may have been felt by Czinano, who is averaging 15.7 points and 4.7 rebounds this season, shooting 70.5 percent from the field. Czinano averaged just 1.9 points last season.
“She gave me advice in increments, all throughout my career, and still continues to do so to make me what I am today,” Czinano said. “I’m indebted to her for that.
“Number one was the hard work. I never knew what it took to be a good player in the Big Ten, what it would look like during the season. Megan would be the first one to text me on an off-day, saying, ‘Do you want to come shoot with me?’ Showing me her workouts, showing me what she did to become the player that she was. Even now, I still do some of that stuff.”
Gustafson was right on that day last March. A torch was passed, not just to Czinano, but to the rest of the Hawkeyes as well. The records at this point in the season are nearly identical — last year’s team was 15-4 at this time, 6-2 in league play.
The celebration on Sunday could also be considered a celebration of what is still going on within the program.
“Overall, this team has grown so much from last year to this year,” Czinano said. “I’m excited to see where this season takes us.”