'Clarkies' converge in downtown Minneapolis for Big Ten tournament

Sisters Eliona and Eliza Sofogah woke up Friday morning thinking they'd be headed to another day at their Plymouth elementary school. Instead, their mom told them, they were going into downtown Minneapolis to see Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes face Penn State in the NCAA's Big Ten Conference Tournament.

"They were like, are you serious?" mom Leslie Sofogah said, as she waited with her 10- and 8-year-old daughters, her own mother — a Hawkeyes season ticket holder — and a growing group of fans lining up in the Minneapolis skyway in the hours ahead of the late afternoon game at Target Center.

Sofogah said she laid out two Clark No. 22 T-shirts on her daughter's beds to let them know they were in for a surprise.

"It was shock," Sofogah said. "We've been watching them all season on the TV, and it's different to see them in person."

Waiting fans set up lawn chairs in the skyway, playing cards and handing out friendship bracelets. Reagan Cross, 12, said he made 311 bracelets ahead of the tournament, stringing together thousands of yellow and black beads with basketball charms, spelling out "Iowa," "Hawkeyes," and the names of every player and coach on the team that his family loves.

Mom and dad, Jodi and Matt Cross, of Pella, Iowa, helped their son make the friendship bracelets over the past month, a trend based on a Taylor Swift lyric.

"We decided to do it for the tournament and just hand them out," Reagan Cross said. "I was born a Hawkeye and I'll always be a Hawkeye."

Diehard Hawkeyes stress that they are fans of every player, not just NCAA all-time leading scorer Clark. But the star guard has created a phenomenon and following unlike any seen before in women's college basketball. The Big Ten women's tournament sold out for the first time ever. Clark's name and jersey appeared on fans young and old.

For younger kids who look up to Clark, this is all they've ever known. But for generations of Hawkeyes and women's basketball fans before them, they see Clark helping bring long overdue recognition to the team and the sport.

"It's unbelievable watching her live and the whole team is just phenomenal," said season ticket holder June Brady, who found her spot in the front of the general admission line at 5:50 a.m.

"Women's basketball is being elevated," Brady said.

Lori Fesitner, the grandmother of the Sofogah sisters, lives in southwest Iowa, and is a season ticket holder for Hawkeye's women's basketball. She says it's cool to see her grandkids catch the Iowa bug. Eliona and Eliza said in unison that they were most excited to see Clark in person.

"It's just amazing how she plays. Sometimes when I watch her I don't even believe that it's real," Eliona said. "When she does stuff, like made the shot to become the number one scorer in the NCAA, it was so amazing she had scored all those points."

Friday's game just so happened to coincide with International Women's Day. It was not lost on longtime Hawkeyes fan Amanda Mosley of Iowa City.

"It's time. It's been past time to do something that's this big and this exciting for women," said Mosley, who was sporting a custom jean jacket with I♀wa on the back. "I played college ball in a small school and didn't really feel like anybody cared about it. And so to watch people show out like this... I'm glad that we can see it and be a part of it."