Playing her one and only season with Barron Collier, Paige Clausen burst onto the Collier County girls basketball landscape after moving to Naples from Maryland. OLIVIA MEANS/SPECIAL TO CSI
Paige Clausen said it was “the best decision I’ve ever made.”
To say her move from Covid-cautious Maryland to Covid-calm Florida worked out well … yes, that would be a drastic understatement.
Clausen — who uprooted herself so she could play a full schedule in her senior season — used her 6-foot frame and tremendous length to deliver in a big way as she led the Barron Collier girls basketball team to the threshold of its first state semifinal berth since 2015.
Alas, Clausen’s game-high 24 points were not enough last Friday night as the host Cougars lost their Class 5A regional final to Clearwater, 49-45, in overtime.
Shortly after the gut-wrenching defeat, coach Mike Hamburg put the dejection aside and happily talked about Clausen’s effect on both him and his program during her one-and-done career at Barron.
“This season was an absolute pleasure,” said Hamburg, who’s guided the Cougars to two state titles and one runner-up finish in 22 seasons as their head coach. “Last year was a struggle to get everybody on the same page. This year, it kind of energized me.
“We were blessed, blessed, blessed — it’s a good thing I go to church every week — to get Paige, and she just set the world on fire. If she’s not Player of the Year … I mean, I understand Shaq (aka Fort Myers senior Chaniya Clark) is a great player … but I think Paige did a lot more for our team than any other player down here did for their team.”
Clausen, who swished the game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime against Clearwater, leaves Barron Collier as the school’s single-season and single-game scoring leader (680 and 44 points, respectively). She averaged a double-double — 22.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game — while also coming up with 5.3 steals, 3.7 assists and 1.2 blocks per contest.
Had she remained in Maryland, Clausen’s senior season at Urbana High School would have lasted just eight days. Urbana went 2-4 in its abbreviated season, which began Feb. 4.
“Coming here has allowed me to meet so many great people — Coach (Hamburg), my teammates … I love them,” said Clausen, who, according to MaxPreps.com, averaged between 10 and 11 points per game during her three seasons at Urbana. “If I had stayed (in Maryland), I would not have any of the opportunities. I wouldn’t be able to have any playoff experience, wouldn’t be able to have half the fun, so I’m just so happy I moved here.”
Playing in her 30th and final game for the Cougars (22-8), Clausen’s newly developed left-hand game was on full display against Clearwater. Over and over, she attacked the Tornadoes’ interior defense by using a stutter-step to her right before darting left toward the basket.
“That, honestly, only developed this year,” Clausen said. “I used to pretty much always go to my right. But this year I was put in a different situation than I had in previous years, so it really pushed me to improve all my skills.”
Hamburg said he saw some tape of Clausen playing at Urbana but didn’t know just how good a player he was getting. And because summer workouts were restricted due to Covid, Hamburg said he and the rest of the Cougars barely saw Clausen play until basketball season rolled around.
“She seemed like a good complementary role player, and they had a big team (at Urbana) so she didn’t have to play inside much,” said Hamburg, who also watched Cougars co-captain Cierra Alderman, Kayla Rogers and Elena Laccetti suit up for the final time last Friday. “Besides being a heckuva basketball player, she just fit in with the team, and I think everybody on our team respects her, and I think everyone in this county should respect her because she was just awesome.”
Their time with Clausen was fun while it lasted, but Hamburg knows his returning players will have to “put the work in” if they want to keep playing at a high level next season.
“And losing a game like this should motivate us. It’ll motivate me,” said Hamburg, who will have his second- and third-leading scorers — junior Deydra Ramos (10.7 points per game) and sophomore Juanita Rendon (10.0 ppg) — back next season.
Also returning will be freshman Rebecca Van’t Hoyt, who averaged five rebounds per game — second on the team behind Clausen. Another freshman, Regan Means, may also be a help on the boards next season; she averaged nearly two rebounds in seven minutes of action per game.
The Cougars stand to get a big boost if sophomore Alexandra Zgrdja — who Hamburg said was probably the team’s best outside shooter a year ago — returns from a knee injury that cost her the entire 2020-21 campaign. She made 10 3-pointers during her freshman season.
And don’t forget junior Jasmin Harris. Although Hamburg said she doesn’t like to shoot from beyond the arc, Harris lit up Clearwater with a trio of 3-pointers in the third quarter (after making seven all season prior to the game). Maybe she just discovered a new part of her game.
Hamburg said the nail-biter with Clearwater was the best game played inside Barron’s gym since the Cougars’ state title runs in 2006 and 2008. (They also reached the state semifinals in 2007.)
He recalled three victories, in particular: the 2006 state semifinal against Miami Jackson High (54-49); the 2008 New Year’s Day title game of the Barron Collier-hosted Holiday Shootout against current WNBA player Glory Johnson and Webb School of Knoxville, Tenn. (48-47 on a last-second putback); and the 2008 regional semifinal against Nova (49-48 in OT).
That’s sayin’ something.
“(I’d) rather win and get to Lakeland,” Hamburg said, “but you know what? It was a great game.”
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