Little feet stomping on the hardwood. The clank of the rim. Parents instructing their kids. These are the sounds of a youth basketball game.
Kelly Sopak was ready to coach the first game of the season with his daughter and her friends playing at the third-grade level.
As the girls battled on the court, they joyfully started their season, scoring four points. When the whistle blew, the girls ran over to Sopak in celebration.
But there was one girl, smaller than the rest, crying and slamming her fists on the ground. She knew the team’s four points wasn’t enough to beat their opponents six.
That girl was Clair Steele. And her competitive spirit hasn’t changed since.
Steele, who wrapped up her Lehigh basketball career this past season, was in first grade at the time of that game, even though it was a league for third graders.
Sopak would go on to coach Steele into 12th grade through the Cal Stars AAU Basketball program, where the Orinda, California, native played with and against some of the most competitive players in the state, including Sabrina Ionescu, the first overall pick in the 2020 WNBA draft.
“They had to compete every day in practice,” Sopak said. “(Clair) had to guard Sabrina, and Sabrina guarded her. She got to do that for two years. Not a lot of kids get to do that.”
And she did so undersized. At 5 feet, 5 inches, Steele was the shortest player on the Mountain Hawks squad — something she’s been used to throughout her career. Yet, she achieved accolades and won championships, turning what many see as a liability into a strength in her game.
“Clair was small since she had been playing basketball when she was in first grade,” Sopak said. “She’s really just used that size to more of her strengths than weaknesses. Fundamentally, she’s become really solid over the years because she had to be.”
The experiences Steele had through AAU helped her become better prepared on the court for college basketball. But she faced a new hurdle while at Lehigh: Adjusting to the length of the season was difficult for her along with acclimating to a whole new environment in college.
“It’s a long season,” Steele said. “We start with workouts probably like the week after school starts, and then we don’t finish until March.”
Being across the country was also challenging as she struggled through the mental difficulties brought on by the pandemic.
“My mom moved me in mid August, and I didn’t see my parents until the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio in March,” Steele said. “It’s made me a stronger person just because I tried to lock in and grow during that time.”
While struggling through the pandemic, Steele established herself as the starting point guard. She started all 16 games throughout the course of the season and led the team in assists.
That same season, Lehigh entered the Patriot League Tournament seeded fourth. The Hawks beat Boston College in the Patriot League championship to secure an NCAA Tournament berth. Ever reliable, Steele finished the season with a team-high average of 31.4 minutes per game.
As a point guard, chemistry is key, and she worked hard to develop a solid bond with her teammates, including center Emma Grothaus.
Grothaus and Steele lived on the same floor their freshman year and lived together throughout the pandemic. Their friendship helped each of them elevate their game on the court.
“She has a really high IQ, plays really fast and is the biggest competitor you’ll ever meet,” Grothaus said. “Just like on the basketball court or emotionally and as we grew up, our relationship has gotten even closer.”
Her reliability in friendship and on-court presence also showed through in her game, particularly her ball handling. In Steele’s senior season, her 3.97 assist-to-turnover ratio was in the highest in NCAA Division I basketball — men’s and women’s — establishing Steele as one of the most efficient players at the collegiate level.
Steele may be done at Lehigh, but she’s not done playing basketball. She will head back home to finish her eligibility at Division I Saint Mary’s University of California where she will study toward a master’s degree in business.
Steele didn’t envision her collegiate career going the way it did — a season abruptly cancelled in the playoffs, virtual classes, months away from family. Yet, in the struggle of the pandemic, she found achievement, friendships and memories she will never forget.