Chris Fryer can’t say he saw this coming. The Mount Juliet girls basketball coach didn’t know when Alysha Clark walked onto the court her sophomore season that he was looking at someone who had a future in the WNBA.
“I didn’t see it. I just saw a really good athlete,” he said. “When she came to us, any sport that she would have gone into, and got serious about, she would have been the very best at that sport.”
But basketball was new to Clark, who had just moved to Mt. Juliet from Topeka, Kansas.
“Her skills were by far the worst on our team when she came. Everybody could shoot, dribble and pass better than she could,” Fryer says laughing. “(But) everything you told her, she just soaked up like a sponge and she learned very quick.”
Rick Insell can vouch for that. The Middle Tennessee State University coach is the latest benefactor of Clark’s drive, determination and strengths.
Clark came to MTSU via an unusual path — but a course that just last week that led to a school record when she dropped 47 points against South Alabama. And itt is a journey that most likely will end in the WNBA as Clark has been projected on some draft boards to be taken as high as fourth overall in April.
But somehow this elite talent was overlooked by a plethora of college coaches. Maybe it was her size, maybe it was the injury she sustained her junior year at Mt. Juliet. Whatever it was, many schools beyond mid-major conferences passed her up.
Four years later, she is one the best college basketball players in the country.
“You can’t measure a person’s heart,” Insell said. “If they could have measured her heart, everybody in the country would have been after her.”
Feeling her pain
That junior year Clark got hurt. She returned to the court less than two months later, but again got hurt.
Suddenly the letters and phone calls stopped coming in from the bigger schools. There might have been one or two college coaches who stopped by a Mt. Juliet game after Clark cracked her hip during her junior season, but they didn’t stay long.
“Some colleges really didn’t even know that I was hurt,” Clark said. “They showed up to some games and they were like ‘Oh, she is hurt.’ That kind of hurt my feelings. I am supposed to be a recruit and if you care for me as a person, you should know something like that.”
Belmont University did.
The Bruins knew Clark had suffered a big injury, and yet they still called to check in and see how she was doing, to see how her recovery was going.
To be fair, even after the injury, bigger schools such as Vanderbilt stayed in the hunt. But Clark decided to commit to Belmont early her senior season, before leading Mt. Juliet to a state championship. It was a move Fryer thinks Clark made partially because she wanted something written in stone in case another injury happened. Clark says she made the decision because of Belmont’s loyalty.
“Belmont was there every step of the way, even with me telling them I am looking at this place and this place. They were still there,” she said. “When I saw that, I was like ‘Well, this must be where I should be going.’ So that’s what I did.”
Belmont was rewarded for its devotion — for awhile anyway.
Clark averaged 20.1 points per game, recorded 18 double-doubles her first season — the second most in the nation that year by a freshman — and was third in the nation among freshman with 10.9 rebounds a game. She was named the Atlantic Sun Conference’s Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year — the first player in league history to win both in the same season.
The next year she earned player of the year honors again, averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds (third most in the nation). She also became the fastest player in school history to reach 1,000 points, doing so in just 52 games.
But then, after her sophomore season, and after leading Belmont to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, she transferred to MTSU.
Not because of a grudge with the coaching staff or her teammates. No, she was ready for the next step up.
“I wanted to be challenged as a player and play against some of the best competition in the nation,” she said. “I wanted to become one of the elite players in the country. To do that, you have to play against the best.”
No ifs, ands or buts
As the words roll out in that raspy Southern drawl, there is no hesitation, no doubt. Insell has the utmost confidence when he talks about his undersized 5-foot-10 forward.
“She can play anywhere in the country,” Insell said. “No, ifs, ands or buts about it. For any program in the country, for any coach in the country. Very few people around like Alysha Clark.”
Sure, Insell is biased. And though Clark has indeed found success in two different conferences, both are considered mid-majors. So, can Clark really play with the big teams?
This season alone, the MTSU senior was consistent in big non-conference games. In a rare battle against Tennessee in November she scored 23 points and hauled down 10 rebounds while being defended by 6-6 Kelley Cain.
“What does that tell you?” Insell said. “She got a double-double against one of the best big people in the country.”
That was just the start, too.
She also had big games against LSU (16 points and 20 rebounds), last year’s national champion runner-up Louisville (24 and 14) and Kentucky (13 and 9). Against Kentucky, Insell said Clark had the stomach flu so bad that she left the floor twice to vomit. But she still managed to play 40 minutes.
Hey, she said she wanted a challenge.
“When you get against bigger and better competition, you are like ‘Am I really going to be able to do that?’” said Clark, who is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field this season. “I think (that) I have been able to score like I have and do the things I’ve been able to do against some of the bigger teams shows the hard work I put in.”
With just a handful of regular-season games left this year, Clark has put together another impressive stat sheet. In her second season at MTSU, she is averaging a conference-best 25 points and nearly 11 rebounds, along with three assists, 2.5 steals and 34.6 minutes a game.
This comes after her junior campaign in which she led the nation with 27.5 points a game — a school record. She was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press and earned the Sun Belt Conference’s Player of the Year award. By doing so she is believed to be the first person in men’s or women’s college basketball history to ever be named the player of the year in more than one conference.
“I said this in high school, she would have been all-state in any sport she would have played in,” Fryer said. “If she was a male, she would be Bo Jackson. She’d be hitting the home runs in baseball. She’d be winning the golf tournaments. She’d be a tremendous football player.
“In any activity she puts herself into, she is going to be the very best at it. She is going to work at it and she is going to be the best.”
Proving people wrong
When she got to MTSU, she had to sit out a year because of the NCAA transfer rules. So she spent the 2007-08 season learning from another MTSU standout, Amber Holt. She guarded Holt, who was drafted by the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun two years ago, in practice every day.
Clark said she drifted out of her comfort zone during practice and worked on everything. While her rebounding has always been solid — Insell has compared her knack of hauling down boards to former NBA'er Dennis Rodman’s approach — she strengthened up her defense in the post and out on the perimeter. Knowing she would be a smaller forward at the bigger level, offensively she practiced shooting outside more and she shored up her ball handling.
That year also showed Insell what type of teammate Clark is. Fryer points out how as a high school senior she had the state championship trophy in one hand and her teammate’s warmup sweats in the other hand as she went back to the locker room. Insell was astonished that Clark drove to road games the year she sat out, including to the conference tournament in Mobile, Ala.
“I think that’s why whenever she got to play she came in right away and she was one of our instant leaders,” Insell said. “You are born with that just like you are born with touch. A lot of your great leaders are born that way. They have that charisma about them your teammates gravitate to. She has got it.”
Yes, Clark seems to have leadership, skill and determination and maybe a little bit of a chip on her shoulder for all those people who told her she wasn’t big enough or good enough.
“I like to prove people wrong,” Clark said with a smile. “It is really up to God as to whether it is something I am going to do, or something I am not going to do. I just keep my faith in Him and know he is going to guide me in the right direction.”
And though Clark is proving she could have played anywhere, she ended up at MTSU — something she has no regrets about. Which is good, because her teammates are glad she is a Blue Raider too.
“She could play anywhere,” MTSU’s senior forward Brandi Brown said. “We are lucky to have her here."