Less than a minute into her answer, Hamburg basketball star Clara Strack was overwhelmed with emotion.
How did Virginia Tech come about, and what’s it feel like for you to be committed?
“It’s super exciting,” Strack began, before pausing. “It’s just really exciting. Just something I’ve always dreamed of doing ... playing in college at a high level.”
Strack was emotional because she has accomplished a dream she set as a freshman and is about to join the 1.3% of female high school basketball players to make Division I.
Strack, a 6-foot-3 forward/center who will be a senior, is expected to be the first Hamburg graduate to play Division I basketball since Blake McClimans, Class of 2009, played for the University of Michigan men's team. Strack is believed to be the first Hamburg girls basketball player to go Division I in at least 30 years.
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“The girl puts in the time,” said Amy Seager, Hamburg’s girls basketball coach. “Clara made so many sacrifices to make this happen. She was traveling every weekend. She was on a really good AAU team last year. And now this year she was traveling to New York City every weekend because she knew if she wanted to compete at the level she knew she belonged that’s what she had to do.”
Due to Strack's AAU schedule, she and Seager mainly communicate via text during the summer. Seager said she was comforted when Strack texted a heads-up on her commitment last month to Virginia Tech. As she read the message, she immediately called Strack to hear her voice, ask questions, and most importantly, congratulate her.
“I felt relieved for her,” Seager said. “I know how hard she’s worked for this. I could see her, and it’s finally happened. I also know she’s also out there playing, waiting to get results and offers. Waiting to make that decision is stressful, right? I’m happy she finally got what she earned and also happy she was able to make that decision and can now enjoy it.”
Instead of being in Western New York for the summer, Strack is traveling the nation with New York City-based Exodus, one of the top girls AAU programs in the country. She was recently on ESPNU as her team competed in the Nike EYBL 17U championship game in Chicago. She leaves Wednesday for a series of events in Atlanta.
“She’s made all those sacrifices and now look at her,” Seager said. “She’s going to be playing at Virginia Tech. It’s insane.”
She was named to the All-Western New York large schools first team last season and the Class A all-state first team after finishing second in Section VI in points (26.5) and first in rebounds (16.9). She led the Bulldogs to their third consecutive A-1 sectional title.
She had offers from Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Virginia, Indiana and Wake Forest, among others. Strack said she appreciated every offer she got, but there was something about being in Blacksburg, Va., and touring Virginia Tech’s 2,600-acre main campus. All she could do was smile and envision herself as a student at Virginia Tech during her entire time on campus. She is expected to sign her National Letter of Intent in the fall.
“When I visited Virginia Tech, it just felt right,” Strack said. “I love the coaching staff there. I met some of the team and love them, and I love the area and everything about it.”
Part of the appeal of joining the Hokies is the idea of what she could become. She learned about how the coaching staff molded senior Elizabeth Kitley, a 6-foot-6 center, into the reigning ACC Player of the Year, a semifinalist for the Naismith Award, and a finalist for the Lisa Leslie Award.
“She’s an All-American player going to the WNBA and seeing her transformation from when she got there to now was huge," Strack said. "They really worked with her, so seeing that they could do the same thing with me.”
With the discipline Strack has, becoming a player similar to or better than Kitley isn’t far-fetched. Refining her skills is an art that Strack takes seriously, and her performance on the court and year-to-year progression shows she isn’t close to peaking.
She was named by the Hamburg coaches as the team’s Most Improved Player the past three seasons. She has evolved from a junior varsity player as a freshman and being, as Seager said, a “deer in headlights” to becoming a key contributor on the varsity before her freshman season ended and blossoming into one of the best players in Western New York.
“The girl just puts in the work,” Steager said. “She puts in the work in the offseason and comes back better when you think she can’t come back better. I wasn’t surprised because she puts in the time.”
Strack’s junior season is when it looked as if everything was coming together. As a freshman, she would quickly pass the ball to a guard after grabbing a rebound. Now, she will grab a rebound and push the ball upcourt. She went from strictly being a traditional big and only posting up to occasionally spreading the floor and showcasing her jumper.
Strack set the Hamburg record for points in a game regardless of gender with a 47-point outing versus Jamestown in January. Barring a setback, she should become the Bulldogs’ all-time leading scorer, also regardless of gender, surpassing Adam Zoeller, Class of 2001. With 1,236 career points, she is 148 from passing Zoeller's total.
To commemorate Strack’s accomplishments, Seager has suggested a record board be hung in the gym. All it would show is the litany of records her Virginia Tech-bound player holds.
Even with everything Strack has accomplished as a high school player, and still could, she’s excited to wear that No. 13 purple jersey for one last season and leave Hamburg on a high note.
“It’s definitely going to be really exciting,” Strack said. "I think it’s going to be a good one, for sure.”