2024 All-Area Girls' Basketball Player of the Year: Claire Seal goes out with bang

Apr. 13—ARTHUR — Claire Seal has been in the gym her whole life.

No, really.

"On the night she was born, I actually had a game that got snowed out," Nathan Seal, Claire's dad, said. "A couple days later, probably within the week, she was at her first high school game, so she's been playing in the gym forever."

Nathan was the Mahomet-Seymour girls' basketball coach from 2001-2020, and Claire was around for almost all of it, dribbling a ball from the time she was physically able to stand up and bounce a ball. She remembers some of those early days of getting introduced to the game she came to know and love, even when she started playing Biddy Ball in a room full of kindergarteners in Mahomet.

It was only fitting that her dad broke the news.

"Hey, I've got to tell you something," Nathan said as Claire came down the stairs last Sunday evening. "You're the News-Gazette Basketball Player of the Year."

"Really?" Claire said in shock and excitement as her voice proceeded to get higher. "That's awesome!"

It was a full-circle moment for Claire, who averaged 18.6 points and 13.3 rebounds per game during her senior year at Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond, and for multiple reasons.

Realizing her talentNathan has seen and coached a lot of girls' basketball, and he had that light-bulb moment of realizing his daughter could be a solid player during a crucial time of a middle school sectional championship in Effingham. Claire's team was down by double digits late in the game, and she had a huge fourth quarter to bring them back, win the game and send them to state.

"I still remember that game and that moment," Nathan said. "She rode the bus home with her team, and I remember the car ride home with my wife. We were excited about how they won the game, but I think that was the moment we thought she could be a pretty good player."

That realization for Claire didn't come until a couple years later.

Moving placesThe Seal family moved from Mahomet to Arthur in 2020, right before Claire's freshman year of high school, when Nathan accepted ALAH's assistant principal and athletic director positions.

She didn't have many expectations heading into that first season, just wanting to find her role and develop connections with her new teammates. She went on to be the Knights' second-leading scorer behind then-junior point guard Alexa Miller.

Before the start of her sophomore season, coach Mac Condill pulled Claire and Miller aside and challenged them to work together to lead the way. Claire knew he trusted Miller, and this was confirmation he trusted her, too.

"My coaches put a lot of trust in me," Claire said. "I always feel pressure, but it's mostly self-inflicted. There wasn't any pressure from my coaches, teammates or support system."

When that belief in herself clicked, she took off. Claire led the Knights in scoring (15.4 points per game) and rebounding (9.6 per game) as a sophomore on her way to earning her first of three consecutive unanimous All-Lincoln Prairie Conference First Team and News-Gazette All-Area First Team honors.

Experiencing a setbackThe only thing missing was a postseason trophy.

ALAH went into the 2021-22 season with a lot of potential, and it lived up to the hype with a 21-2 record to start the schedule. With seven games left in the regular season, Claire tore her ACL. The Knights went 4-4 the rest of the way, losing their first postseason game in the regional semifinals.

Claire had surgery soon after, and it ate at her that she couldn't be on the court to help her team. She still went to every game and was "the biggest cheerleader" in the gym, but there was a feeling that the season could have been so much more than it was.

"Obviously, tearing my ACL was one of the low parts of my career. When it happened initially, it was scary. I knew I couldn't get up, and I was terrified of what the reality meant," Claire said. "In my rehab process, my doctors, my therapist and everyone I worked with was phenomenal. ... When I finally got released, it was a couple weeks before my junior season started, and I knew I was going to be fine as long as I just trusted myself."

She trusted herself enough to put up similar numbers as the year before and lead the Knights to a regional championship appearance.

Going out with a bangMany key ALAH seniors graduated over the past couple years, and with them went Claire's best chances at postseason success. She entered her senior season as the team's lone returning starter, giving her one last challenge for her high school career.

"I knew it was more about making connections for the future. Not as much for my personal accomplishments but setting up the girls for the next years to come," Claire said. "I just wanted to go out with a bang. No one wants to end their career on a sad note."

She still racked up plenty of personal accomplishments. This year, Claire set ALAH's single-game records for points (33) and rebounds (23) as well as the single-season (594 points, 425 rebounds) and career (1,539 points, 1,052 rebounds) marks. She was a double-double machine, recording the feat in 23 of 32 games.

The Knights jumped on Claire's back — the second-leading scorer and rebounder averaged 4.3 points and 4.4 boards per game — and she took them to a 19-13 season. Certainly respectable but unbelievably impressive when you consider the young, inexperienced team around her.

"I'm not the whole team," Claire said. "Basketball is a team sport, and we need each other. I'd hate to look at it as if I wasn't there, and it's hard to put into words what the team would have looked like."

Spoken just like the humble, caring little girl Nathan remembers when she first picked up a basketball.

"I don't even know if I have the words to express how proud I am of her," Nathan said. "She started off as a little redheaded, aggressive kid playing rec ball at Lincoln Trail in Mahomet and just kept working on her game. ... This year was just a joy to watch her play, knowing this was it for her. Every game, as a dad, was fun to sit back and watch and enjoy the moment because I knew it'd be over quick, and it was."

Looking aheadThis year was essentially a retirement parade for Claire. She doesn't have any plans to continue her basketball career in college, though she undoubtedly could. She's happy knowing she left it all on the court and brought her best every night.

Claire wants to study in the pre-medical field and become a surgeon, maybe working as a manager for a major basketball team along the way. She also believes coaching is in her future.

Fitting, especially considering how she attended her very first game.