Iowa State Cyclones freshmen forward Jalynn Bristow (1), center Audi Crooks (55), guard Arianna Jackson (2), Kelsey Joens (23), and forward Addy Brown (24) pose during the university’s women’s basketball media day at Iowa State Sukup Basketball practice facility on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Kelsey Joens boldly charted the path she hopes to trace throughout her Iowa State career.
The former West Liberty star — and younger sister to the Cyclones’ all-time leading scorer and rebounder, Ashley Joens — won’t leave anything to chance.
She’ll decide how far she goes and how fast she’ll get there.
“I want (to be) Big 12 freshman of the year,” Joens said during ISU’s media day event on Thursday. “I want to win the Big 12 Tournament. I want to make it to the NCAA Tournament and win it, because that’s everyone’s goal. I have such high expectations for myself and I’m gonna strive to get those.”
Joens has at least four years to accomplish that ongoing mission, but it will likely begin with baby steps for head coach Bill Fennelly’s youthful Cyclones.
“That’s why they came here,” Fennelly said of his five raw, but talented freshmen. “They came because they knew they were gonna play. There’ll be some really fun moments and there’ll be some frustrating ones.”
ISU became so young so quickly partly because former starters Lexi Donarski and Denae Fritz entered the transfer portal last spring. Donarski landed at North Carolina. Fritz is with Big 12 rival Baylor. All-Big 12 point guard Emily Ryan and versatile guard-forward Nyamer Diew chose to stay — and they’re providing valuable leadership to their young supporting cast. Especially Ryan, who is on what Fennelly called “a pitch count” as she rehabs a lower leg injury.
“If you come to practice, Emily’s calling plays from the sideline,” said Fennelly, whose team won its first Big 12 Tournament title since 2001 last season. “She gets it. She understands it. I think the thing about her that’s even more special is she’s embraced the idea of — she’s looking around the room and there’s not a lot of people she’s played with before, if ever.”
Ryan said she plans to be able to play in either the Cyclones’ Nov. 1 exhibition game against Truman State or the Nov. 6 season-opener against Butler.
“I’m confident I’ll be cleared and ready to play basketball when the time comes,” she said.
Who else will be ready? Everyone better be, Fennelly said.
“We were working on special situations (Wednesday) night and we’re calling plays, eight seconds to go down one, and you look out there and there’s four freshmen and a transfer,” Fennelly said. “You don’t do that if you don’t believe a kid can go and make a play.”
That long list of players includes Joens, who has drawn primary point guard duty because of Ryan’s absence from the floor.
“I don’t think there’s any player on our team who’s worked harder (and) has been put in a worse position than Kelsey Joens,” said Fennelly, who noted that competitiveness is in the Joens family’s ‘DNA.’ “She has to play the (point guard) position, get chewed out playing the position, has to play a lot of minutes.”
Joens doesn’t mind. Adaptability is part of her “DNA” as well.
“I’m seeing different things than I usually do,” she said. “I think it’s helped me develop as a player.”
How far Joens’s development along with highly-touted fellow freshmen such as Jalynn Bristow, Addy Brown, Audi Crooks and Arianna Jackson can take the Cyclones is unclear as of now, but with Ryan and Diew leading the way, the ceiling remains high for a team that promises to be one of the youngest in the country.
“Sometimes they just need love,” Diew said. “One day, they’re gonna need a little bit more love than they will (need) picking at them a little bit and stuff. So just knowing who’s having a bad day and who’s not (having one) is a big thing. I think that takes a lot as a leader.”