MINNEAPOLIS — When Monika Czinano was just a little girl, there were plenty of influences on her by her family.
Living in Minnesota, Czinano was a big Gophers fan, and would often have her birthday parties at Williams Arena. Her grandfather, an Iowa Hawkeyes fan who passed away when she was young, did all he could to nudge her the other way.
Flash forward to Monday night, and the story comes full circle. In front of her family, friends, former teammates, and friends at Watertown-Mayer High School, Czinano returned home with a little bit of that influence on each side. She was back at Williams Arena once again, but this time, in an Iowa Hawkeyes jersey.
“Monika’s grandpa, a huge Hawkeye fan, passed away when she was 8,” Monika’s mother, Theresa Czinano said. “So. to see her play for them is a bit mind-boggling. And then to see her play in The Barn in front of so many Watertown fans was pretty surreal. It almost felt like a home game, and I guess, in a way, it was. There were tears for sure, but happy tears.”
Czinano, a freshman on the Iowa women’s basketball team, was making her first trip back home. While it was a bit of a weird feeling at first coming home, it’s a moment and memory she’ll remember forever.
“This is where I came when I was a kid,” Czinano said. “I was telling my teammates that this is weird coming back to Minnesota and being on the opposing end having birthday parties here when I was a kid. Getting a win against the Gophers on top of it is huge.”
Czinano’s biggest fans
Czinano played just four minutes in Iowa’s 81-63 victory over the Gophers. Although most people knew Czinano’s playing time would be limited, that didn’t stop them from coming out in full force.
More than 65 people made the trip to Williams Arena to support Czinano in her first game back in her collegiate career. Whether it was family, her former teammates at W-M, youth basketball players who look up to her, or kids from the W-M Unified Sports in which Czinano was so active during her time W-M, the loudest cheers of the night came for No. 25.
“This is insane,” Czinano said about the support. “I didn’t expect anything like this. My mom told me that people were coming, but I had no idea that it was to this level. This is amazing. It’s great to come back, and to be able to play in a conference where I do get to come back home every once in a while.”
While Czinano was busy taking care of business during the game, her friends and family who made the trip were soaking it all in. Coming from a small town, the town of Watertown has rallied around Czinano, claiming her as one of their own.
“I was leaving a boys’ game about a month ago and was teasing a friend who begrudgingly watched one of Monika’s games on TV,” Theresa Czinano said. “He admitted he actually enjoyed watching it, and I told him that I kind of have a horse in the race, but I would understand if he didn’t want to watch. He leaned down and said, ‘Ya know, to be honest, I kind of feel like I have a horse in the race, too.’ I may never forget that. I hope our community feels a little of that. So many people helped her get where she is. I hope she’s made them proud. She asked me if I thought anyone would come to a game when she’s a senior and I said, ‘maybe, especially if Lindsey Whalen was still coaching.’ But if not, we’ll still be there, her family, and we’ll probably still make signs. The excitement of watching her play will never wear off.”
Learning from the best
When Czinano decided to attend Iowa to continue her basketball career, she knew there was a highly-touted player by the name of Megan Gustafson already there. Both Czinano and Gustafson play a similar position, and instead of choosing to play somewhere else, Czinano saw an opportunity.
While Czinano was used to playing 30 to 34 minutes a game in high school, she’s lucky to see the floor for 10 minutes or so in her freshman season. While that can be tough to deal with after being a Miss Minnesota Basketball finalist, Czinano has accepted her role this season for the Hawkeyes.
“I know what my role is this year,” Czinano said. “I’m just a huge sponge. This year, I’m just soaking up everything. In different years, I’ll have different roles. My role right now is to be a big morale booster and to be really good in practice. When I get in the game, just know what is happening, so in future years, I can have a bigger role.”
One would think that Czinano has had a love for the game since an early age, but that’s not the case. She wanted to quit basketball entirely when she was in fourth grade, and endured even more later on her in life with injuries to get where she is now.
“Monika was my child who wanted to quit basketball after fourth grade because it was too hard, too much running, and too much sweating,” Theresa said. “So, to see how far she’s come, and how much she’s overcome to get here, it is pretty amazing.”
While Czinano might not see the floor this season as much as she wishes, she knows the opportunity that is in front of her. She has a whole season to learn from one of the best players in the Big 10 – if not the country.
When it comes to records at Iowa for the women’s basketball program, Gustafson is the only name that comes to mind. An All-American, the Big 10 Player of The Year last season, and the player who holds nearly every single record for Iowa is what Czinano has the chance to learn from. Gustafson was the only player in the country last season to average more than 25 points per game, and shoot better than 67 percent from the field. Gustafson will go down as one of the best players of all time at Iowa, and Czinano is soaking up and learning as much as she can along the way from her.
“The amount I’ve learned here, even in the first week, is insane,” Czinano said. “She’s amazing. I’ll go shoot with her on her off days. There’s knowledge that you think you know, and she’ll tell me just to tweak this little thing. Then you’re like, wow. How have I never thought of that? She’s just an amazing player and an amazing teammate, and she makes us all better.”
Getting to go up against Gustafson every day in practice only bodes well for Czinano. While it’s been an adjustment, she’s hoping this year prepares her for the years to come, when it’s her turn to dominate in the paint for the Hawkeyes.
“It was definitely a big adjustment,” Czinano said. “Coming from a school where I’m the only one like that, going against her every day was a huge adjustment in the beginning. It’s made me a better player overall. I can never trade that for anything.”