THEY DON’T TEXT or meet for coffee. “Friends” may be the quaint way to describe them, but “rivals” is just as accurate. There’s an old photo of Caitlin Clark and Ashley Joens that captures their youthful harmony and singular focus. It was taken in the summer of 2017, when 11 teenagers from Iowa made it to the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League finals in Chicago.
Standing behind the bleachers, Clark and Joens are, of course, in the middle of the frame. They were the two best players on the team. All Iowa Attack director Dickson Jensen — who IDs himself as the old grumpy guy on the left — isn’t sure if he’s supposed to say this, but Joens dislocated her shoulder in a game that week, ran over to the sideline and had Jensen pop it back into place. She went back in and hit a pair of free throws.
Clark was two years younger than most of the girls on the 17-and-under AAU team, but she didn’t act it. Flashy and confident, she rallied them back from nine points down with just over a minute to go in the quarterfinals, coolly nailing four 3-pointers.
“I’ve coached against some of the greatest players in the country,” Jensen says. “What comes to mind when I look at that picture is that those are just a bunch of Iowa kids who have no chance to win the game. How in the heck did we accomplish this? They’re just average kids that work really, really hard. Those two … they were really good. This was the kickoff of their career that began to put them in the spotlight.”
Despite having suitors from all over the country, Clark and Joens stayed in Iowa. Joens, a 6-foot-1 guard/forward who grew up in Iowa City just five miles from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, wound up two hours away in Ames at Iowa State; Clark, a 6-foot guard from West Des Moines whose older brother Blake is on the Iowa State football team, traversed two hours to Iowa.
Even Jensen couldn’t have predicted what would come next: That in a state with more pork (23.8 million hogs) than people (3.155 million), Iowa would produce two of the best players in women’s basketball. Clark led Division I in scoring as a freshman last year with 26.6 points a game, while Joens, as a junior, finished fifth (24.2).
To get a sense of how dynamic Clark and Joens are, and what the annual December tilt between Iowa and Iowa State means, look no further than Dec. 9, 2020. Joens had 35 points and 13 rebounds that night in Iowa City. Her Cyclones carried a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter, but Clark almost singlehandedly railed her team back, scoring 14 of her 34 points and nailing a 25-footer with 22 seconds left. Iowa State inbounded the ball to Joens in the closing seconds, but she couldn’t get a shot off, and fell to the floor.
On Wednesday, the former All Iowa Attack teammates become rivals once again when Iowa travels 130 miles to Iowa State (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). They’ll share a college court for perhaps the final time, two massive stars in one Midwestern state. Clark and Joens have different styles, struggles and stories. But how they got to this moment is uniquely Iowa.
IF ANYONE COULD have steered Caitlin Clark to Ames, common logic would’ve said that it would be big brother Blake. The Cyclones junior, who plays on special teams and is a backup quarterback, is similarly persistent (he led Des Moines Dowling Catholic High School to a state championship his senior year) and undeniably close with his sister.
It didn’t necessarily start out that way. Blake is two years older, and they grew up in a neighborhood with an exhausting number of boys. Much to the consternation of Blake, wherever he went, Caitlin followed. She was constantly tagging along with him and his friends.
A neighbor boy had some airsoft guns with plastic pellets, and well, you get where this is going …
“She became our target, which is super mean when you look back at it,” Blake says. “It’d be the middle of summer and she’d throw on her sweatpants and a thick winter coat and a stocking cap, and we’d pepper her with all these airsoft pellets.”
Blake insists they wore protective glasses and that nobody got hurt, and they all laugh about it now. The big takeaway in this is that Caitlin was holding her own with boys two years older than her, and eventually did even better.
“I was MVP of a basketball league, and a lot of parents were mad that they gave it to a girl,” she says. “I was super competitive. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. Throw me in with the boys and I was still one of the best.”
She is so competitive that when she took Spanish 3 at Dowling, the class had to cut short its learning games on occasion because Clark got a little too intense. She was on the radar of college coaches by junior high, and, by virtue of being possibly the biggest recruit in Iowa women’s basketball history, she put people in the stands.
She’d be greeted in opposing gyms to “overrated” chants and “ball hog” shouts. None of it rankled Clark. She’d take the 3s that no one else would dare heave up, then stare down the hecklers after the shots went in.
While others slogged into the gym during summer workouts, Clark would smile, be almost giddy, because she was wearing a Dowling uniform and got to play basketball.
Her father, Brent, played baseball and basketball at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and took out some grass in the front yard to make way for a basketball hoop for his children. Neither Brent nor Caitlin’s mom, Anne Nizzi-Clark, had any allegiance to Iowa or Iowa State. They took their children to basketball games at Drake, which is located in Des Moines.
Dowling coach Kristin Meyer, who had the fortune of arriving at the school at the same time as Caitlin Clark, quickly realized the rare comet she had on court. She once asked an assistant coach at a top-10 program, which Meyer declined to disclose, how good he thought Clark was.
“He said, ‘If we could take her this year on our college team, we would,'” Meyer says, recalling the conversation.
“It was before she even stepped foot in a high school classroom.”
Clark would go on to break Class 5A state records for points in a game (60) and 3-pointers in a game (13). Her junior year, she averaged 32.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
Both Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly and Iowa coach Lisa Bluder had zeroed in on Clark when she was in junior high. Bluder says Clark’s parents “kind of kept her protected” from much of the recruiting business, so it was hard to get a feel for whether or not they were wasting their time. Dowling would have open gym at 6:30 in the morning, so Hawkeyes assistant Jan Jensen would leave Iowa City just after 4 a.m. to see Clark. “It was a labor of love, no doubt,” Bluder says. “You knew she was something special.”
Clark didn’t want to go far from home, which left Iowa, Iowa State and Notre Dame as late contenders. Blake never tried to influence his sister to go to Iowa State — he wanted her to go wherever she felt most comfortable. Fennelly has been doing this for long enough that, although Iowa State was in the running, his gut instinct told him it was going to be Iowa or Notre Dame.
Clark waited until the week of signing day to call Bluder, who was at the Orchard Green Restaurant in Iowa City with her husband, David. Despite the November chill, Bluder walked outside to hear the news. “I was beyond rejoiced,” Bluder says.
She had no idea what Clark would do last year as a freshman, in a COVID-19 season. She was a first-team All-American, shared the WBCA Freshman of the Year award with UConn’s Paige Bueckers and carried the Hawkeyes to the Sweet 16. Bluder says having a player like Clark alters expectations.
Clark is so fluid and gifted that Fennelly calls her by far the best in-state recruit he’s seen in his 27 years. She could hit 3-pointers from NBA range as a freshman in high school and had the ballhandling skills of a veteran point guard. She has such a vast knowledge of the game that Bluder often finds that Clark, after watching film, knows what Bluder is going to say before she says it.
“I have big dreams,” says Clark, a business major who is coming off a triple-double on Sunday against Michigan State and averages 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists. “When I said I want to go to Iowa and take the team to the Final Four, people looked at me and said, ‘Is this kid serious?’ I didn’t just say that. I truly believe that. It’s kind of walking that fine line of confident [and] cocky. I think great players have that. That’s something my parents instilled in me. You’ve got to be confident in whatever you’re doing.”
BY THE TIME the Joens girls were old enough to sit up, they had their hands on a basketball. Brian Joens would roll a ball to his daughters and, eventually, they’d roll it back. Forget patty-cake — he’d have his toddlers slapping their hands on the ball. If you create early connections with the basketball when a child is young, Brian says, the game is inherently easier when they get older. When Ashley was around 2, she started dribbling a basketball on the concrete floor in the basement.
Brian and Lisa Joens met while playing basketball for Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They had five daughters and three Division I basketball players — four if you count Kelsey, a junior at Iowa City High who committed to Iowa State in August. Courtney, the oldest, played at Illinois, and Aubrey is a sophomore guard at Iowa State. Ashley won the Cheryl Miller Award last year, which is given to the best small forward in the country, but there are whispers that the youngest girl, Bailey, might wind up being the best of all of them. She’s in fourth grade.
Winters are harsh in eastern Iowa, so Courtney, Ashley and Aubrey would shoot layups on a 5- or 6-foot hoop in the basement, eventually working on drills with their dad at a gym inside a Methodist church in their previous home in Solon, Iowa, 20 minutes from Iowa City. Brian would bring his four oldest daughters, who could shoot at a 10-foot hoop when they were about 5. The thing that always impressed him about Ashley is how she would pick up a ball and launch into whatever drill they left off at the previous day.
She was always a hard worker. It’s how she wants to be known most as a basketball player. The family owns a restaurant called Joensy’s, and Ashley started washing dishes there at the age of 8, a particularly arduous task during Solon’s “Beef Days,” an annual summer festival that packed the place. Ashley was in junior high when the family moved the restaurant to Iowa City. Her jobs evolved with age, and she now waitresses and serves as an occasional backup cook. “I’m really good with the grill and the fryer,” Joens says, the only attempt at self-promotion during an hour-long interview. “When I have to cook at my apartment it’s so weird. It doesn’t taste the same.” She also hyped up the pork tenderloin — it’s Joensy’s specialty.
Joens says that as a kid she was so immersed in school, basketball and the restaurant that the only time she really went downtown, near Iowa’s campus, was on Sundays when the family went to the library. That didn’t mean she didn’t dream of playing for the gold and black.
Joens doesn’t like to talk much about Iowa. Her father describes the recruiting process as this: The summer after her freshman season at Iowa City High, a year in which she earned all-state honors and was conference MVP, Joens was asked to attend Iowa’s camp. She went to the camp, didn’t hear anything from Iowa’s coaches and wasn’t offered a scholarship while numerous other Big Ten schools offered.
Around that same time, Brian Joens said, Fennelly asked if Joens was 100 percent committed to her hometown school.
“I said, ‘Well, there’s zero percent chance she plays at Iowa, because they’ve neglected her,'” Brian Joens said.
What followed for Fennelly were numerous trips to Iowa City over the next few years and many pork tenderloin sandwiches. Joens went on to earn Miss Basketball and Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year, and led the Iowa City Little Hawks to a 25-1 record her senior season, averaging 30.7 points and 11.4 rebounds.
She started all 35 games for the Cyclones the next year and was on the Big 12 All-Freshman team, averaging 11.7 points and 5.0 rebounds.
Bluder is effusive in her praise for Joens, saying she’s a versatile scorer and one of the best rebounders, and that her ability to get to the free throw line is “amazing.”
“She makes you pay when she gets there,” says Bluder, who on Sunday won her 800th game. Joens, she says, has exceeded expectations.
She also confirms that she did not offer the five-star recruit a scholarship.
“Recruiting is not a black-and-white scene,” she said. “There are so many things involved in recruiting.”
Fennelly says Joens is one of most impactful players in school history, mostly because she helped revive what Fennelly calls “The Iowa State Way of doing things.”
“I joke with our football coach that she could be on special teams,” Fennelly says. “She could be a tight end. She’s a very tough-minded kid and just doesn’t … she doesn’t make excuses.”
Joens, an education major, concedes that she’s not a typical college student. She is not active on social media, and just learned how to quote tweet. She oftentimes has to Google the abbreviations and lingo her friends send on texts. Her favorite gadget is a Cricut, which is a computer-controlled cutting machine used for crafting. She is currently using it to make T-shirts that she’ll send out as Christmas presents.
“People watch TikToks and learn dances,” she says. “I watch teacher TikToks and craft TikToks. My favorite app is Pinterest because it has so many great ideas. I’m like 40 years old.”
Joens, who is averaging 20.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists this season, says she doesn’t really like attention, and would rather just mind her own business while playing the game she loves. But respect is clearly important. Ask her who the best player in her family is, and she won’t hesitate.
ALL IOWA ATTACK’S gym is just kitty-corner to Iowa State’s practice facility in Ames. Dickson Jensen built Attack’s facility, program and steely mentality. He believes that clubs that beg stars to play for them wind up watching those players run the club. He says that the youth of America still crave rules and discipline.
Jensen’s teams essentially play positionless basketball. No one works with her back to the basket, and everyone learns how to shoot 3s and capably dribble down the court. That versatility, he says, comes in handy once they reach college.
All Iowa Attack did eventually win a Nike EYBL title the next summer with Clark and Ashley’s sister Aubrey. Clark struggled offensively in the championship game, but still commanded a triple-team in the final seconds, with the score tied. So she served as a decoy, and future Iowa teammate Kylie Feuerbach scored the winning 3. Clark didn’t care that the ball wasn’t in her hands, Jensen says. She was happy to win.
A year later, Clark and Ashley Joens teamed up to win a gold medal with USA Basketball at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in 2019. Jensen says the combination of Joens’ toughness and “the spectacular things Caitlin Clark can do” always made them a formidable combo.
“Ashley has a tendency to be a little more — I mean, she’s just so resilient,” he says. “She doesn’t show her emotions. Caitlin certainly does show her emotions. You can tell what she’s thinking on her shirt sleeve. It was a nice combination of kids who got along great. They were great teammates with each other.”
Clark says Joens has helped Iowa State “become a top-15 program and has really set the bar. She’s a fighter.” Iowa State has lost five straight to Iowa, despite all of Joens’ efforts. She had 26 points and 12 rebounds in Iowa State’s 75-69 loss in 2019.
Last year, the intensity of the week boiled over in Iowa City. Brian Joens was ejected from Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a dispute over where he was sitting in the arena. In a tweet, Brian Joens said he sat in a nonassigned seat because he wanted social distance and was told to leave. “200 fans in a 15500 seat gym and I sat in the wrong seat,” he tweeted. He did not see his daughter nearly will the Cyclones to victory.
An Iowa spokesperson said that Joens was seated “very close” to the Hawkeye family section and was asked to move back into the Iowa State fan area but wouldn’t.
Ashley Joens and Caitlin Clark, for their part, are not bitter rivals. Joens says that they’re not best friends, “but if I see her, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ But we don’t text back or forth or anything.”
Clark, who has built a strong social media following, is certain to have her share of IRL followers in Ames. Last season, the Iowa State football team, unwittingly, became witnesses to the Iowa women’s run to the Sweet 16. Blake Clark would pull up his sister’s games and stream them on a big screen in the football locker room or watch with his roommates at home.
And his teammates would leave impressed. Blake Clark said he’s looking forward to Wednesday night’s game, where he will cheer on his sister.
On a late November afternoon, Joens, true to form, tried to downplay the importance of Wednesday’s game, despite the fact that Iowa is ranked No. 12 and Iowa State is No. 15; even though she’s a senior now, and may not come back next year for a fifth COVID-extended season.
She felt more comfortable talking about the shirts she made for an Iowa State football game, or the 2017 Ford Focus she bought on her own, from the tips she made working at the restaurant.
“Anyone who says it’s just another game is lying,” Fennelly says. “I mean, [Ashley’s] a competitive kid. She grew up down the street from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and we’re playing a team that a lot of people say has the best player to ever come out of our state, and the other team and her name doesn’t get mentioned. It gets mentioned, but not in the same conversation to some people.
“I don’t think she plays any harder in this game than any other game because that’s not her nature. But there’s no question in my mind that there’s a little extra heartbeat.”
Of course Joens is looking forward to this game. She’s been waiting for a win since she was a kid growing up in the backdrop of the University of Iowa. She’s been wanting it since she laid on that floor last year at Carver-Hawkeye.
Near the end of that late-November conversation, she finally relents.
“It kind of motivates me,” she says. “I want to prove them wrong. If you don’t want me here — not necessarily saying that I would’ve gone there; I obviously love it here and have a great team, coaches and fan base around us. But it’s just kind of proving to them, hey, your loss kinda.”
Joens stops herself. She says it’s not about that; it’s about her team. But anyone who’s watched Joens and Clark knows better. It means a little more.