Iowa’s Hustle Queen and over-achiever key piece to team’s success
Sydney Affolter's high school coach on what makes her special
By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – You know Sydney Affolter. She’s the one tearing across the court to retrieve a rebound or the one on the floor in an impossible cat’s cradle of arms and legs tugging at the basketball.
She’s the Hustle Queen.
And she comes by these traits naturally.
“Syd has always been an over-achiever, with an inner urge to always compete at a high level,” her high school coach, Mary Pat Connolly, said. “Her first overall goal is that her team wins, all while achieving her own personal goals. She’s a highly intelligent young lady and knows she can’t help her team win by sitting on the bench, so she had to find another avenue to get on the floor. That’s what drives her energy and hustle.”
Connolly is a Hall of Fame coach and, among other things, was part of the old professional Women’s Basketball League that was honored by the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018 as a “Trailblazer” inductee. She also was the first women’s scholarship athlete at the University of Illinois in 1975. Connolly is the one who started the girls program at Marist H.S. in Chicago when the school went coed in 2002. She has cred.
“Her teammates loved Syd,” Connolly said. “Syd was our best player and hardest worker, a great combo. Her energy was contagious. She never took a ‘day off’ when it came to playing or practicing hard. Put a time and score on any competition, and she raised her play to another level.”
Connolly tells the story of Affolter being unhappy with her shooting after one game. She came in before the next game with her dad (an assistant coach) and put up 200 shots. Her teammates noticed and began joining her pre-game shootarounds.
At Iowa Affolter continues to progress and has become a big factor as a junior. In preseason it wasn’t clear how minutes were going to be alotted given the team’s abundance of guards.
“If Sydney has difficulty getting minutes that would be crazy.,” Iowa assistant Taniya Davis said at media day. “Just because of her hustle. Syd does a lot of things: offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding. She’s the first one to the floor nine times out of 10, and so kids like that have to play, in my opinion, and they will play just because they have the ability to shift the momentum within in the game.”
Affolter’s 14 rebounds against Virginia Tech and its 6-foot-7 center, Elizabeth Kitley, put her on the map. She is now averaging 7.2 rebounds and five points while playing 21.6 minutes, all career-highs for the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes. She understood that rebounding was going to be a team need.
“I think that was really an emphasis this year,” Affolter said. “With McKenna (Warnock) and Monika (Czinano) leaving, I knew that was going to be really important within my role, so I just want to take advantage of that whenever I’m on the floor. And I think rebounding is a lot about hustle. Get in and get after it.
“I think that I’m going to be the first one to the ball every single time, and I think having that mentality helps a lot with rebounding. I don’t think anyone else is going to get it but me.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder readily acknowledges those traits are what drew her to recruit Affolter.
“We liked that about Syd. I mean Syd was just somebody that she’s not afraid to be physical,” Bluder said. “She’ll do the dirty work when it needs to be done. But she’s also a skilled basketball player.”
Affolter understands with the kind of scorers Iowa has (see: Caitlin Clark) that every possession has precious potential.
“I think we always talk about extra possessions, and getting offensive rebounds is the way to do that,” Affolter said. “And Caitlin is going to take a lot of shots, and I think we all know a lot of them go in. But the off chance that it doesn’t, I want to be there to get the rebound, have an extra chance to get another 2- or 3-point shot.”
All that is part of her maturity as a player, something Connolly saw in high school.
“Syd came into Marist with a very high basketball I.Q.,” Connolly said. “She quickly figured out she had to rely and put more trust in her teammates. She developed an all-round game especially on defense.”
She guarded the opponent’s best player, whether guard or post, and that versatility has made her invaluable this season. Bluder pointed out on her radio show that Affolter had the highest plus-minus score (28) against Drake, meaning that the team performed the best when she was on the floor. Iowa won by 23 but was 28 points better than Drake when Affolter was playing. She also led the team against K-State.
“Sydney is a great player; she brings the energy, but I think more so than anything one thing from Sydney I’ve seen this offseason is just her in the gym constantly working on different things,” Davis said. “Whether it’s off the dribble, her shooting ability… so I think Sydney will definitely find herself getting some minutes this year.”
And she has.