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DALLAS — Karlie Samuelson is one of the top players for Stanford’s Final Four basketball team. Her sister Katie Lou Samuelson is one of the top players for Connecticut’s Final Four basketball team.
Their dad, Jon Samuelson, spent last week crisscrossing the country to watch his daughters play. One day in Lexington, Kentucky, to see the Stanford senior; the next day in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to see the sophomore.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
“That first 48 hours I had an hour’s sleep at the Cincinnati airport — I think,” Jon said from his Huntington Beach home at the end of the four-day, 10-flight endurance test.
This weekend, he gets to stay in one place: Dallas, site of the Women’s Final Four.
“Clearly it was worth it going back and forth,” Katie Lou said Thursday. “He’s a good luck charm for both of us.”
The convenience comes at a cost, however: One of his daughters is sure to lose this weekend — and it might be to the other one in the national championship game Sunday.
First, though, each needs to win their semifinal game Friday night. Stanford (32-5) plays South Carolina. Connecticut, which is riding a 111-game winning streak, faces Mississippi State. Connecticut hasn’t loss since 2014 when Bonnie Samuelson, the oldest of the three sisters, combined with Karlie for 22 points in a 66-61 upset victory at Stanford.
“If we end up playing Connecticut, I hope her parents will root for us in that game because they have two more years to root for Katie Lou,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.
Not going to happen.
Jon’s brother Steve Samuelson was scrambling this week to make t-shirts for the family that read “StanConn.”
The parents have become so accustomed to rooting for both schools, they’re not sure how they would react if Stanford stands in the way of Connecticut’s fifth consecutive championship.
“For them to play each other?” Jon said. “I think it would be tough.”
For the past two years, when the NCAA Tournament bids went out, the sisters immediately checked the brackets to see if they were in the same regional. They weren’t.
“I really wanted to play her when she got to Connecticut,” said Karlie, a 6-foot sharpshooter who leads the country in three-point accuracy at 49 percent.
The sisters were teammates for two seasons in high school, winning the state championship at Mater Dei in 2012. Karlie knew then that Katie Lou — the youngest of three shooting Samuelsons — would become a big star.
“It’s funny when you are the older one but you’re the one passing and she’s the one scoring,” Karlie said of Katie Lou, a 6-foot-3 winger who was the country’s No. 1 recruit in 2015.
Katie Lou — the family calls her “Lou” — averages 20.3 points for top-ranked UConn and was named first-team All-American. Karlie, who averages 12.8 points per game, received honorable mention.
This all began with Jon and Karen Samuelson, middle school physical education teachers in Orange County who met playing basketball in Newcastle, England. They laid concrete for a basketball court in the backyard where Dad and the three girls spent hours perfecting the art of shooting.
“Whatever Bonnie did, Lou and I always did,” Karlie said. “Bonnie and I beat down on Lou. Maybe that is why she’s tough now.”
Katie Lou broke her right hand in sixth grade, but that didn’t keep her from practicing with her club team, coach Carlos Ballestero recalled. The girl used her left hand for all the drills.
When she broke the same hand a few years later, she won a free-throw contest by making 17 of 25 shots left-handed.
Amanda Sims, a family friend and former pupil of the Samuelsons, recalled how when the girls were still in elementary school, high school varsity players had to try their hardest to beat the sisters at shooting games.
“It wasn’t like playing a normal 9-year-old,” said Sims, a former Texas Christian player who coaches and teaches in Orange County.
Jon Samuelson didn’t plan to develop future WNBA pros. He had played for Cal State Fullerton and Chapman College as a 6-foot-6 guard, but he just wanted to share his passion with the kids.
“My dad tried to make it fun,” said Bonnie, who graduated from Stanford in 2015 and is now studying to become an optometrist. “Make it a little mini adventure and a break from studying.”
A regular summer trip for the family was to the Elks Hoops Shoot Nationals in Boston, a free-throw shooting contest for kids 8 to 13 years old. Bonnie and Karlie are two-time national champions.
When it came time to watch the daughters play games, however, it wasn’t always fun for Jon and Karen. Karen would immerse herself in keeping track of the scoring. Jon would deal with his nerves by pacing. Now, with the girls in college, Jon and Karen watch games on TV — in separate rooms.
And if they attend a game, “I can’t hide anymore,” said Jon. “I have to sit and watch and torture myself.”
Sunday could present the ultimate torture: Karlie vs. Katie Lou for the national championship. The parents wish both could win. They wish for the impossible.