IOWA CITY, Ia. — Before venturing west toward Des Moines’ grand postseason stage, the Little Hawks had to tackle some homework. It arrived in the form of a team questionnaire, designed to gain insight on the various state tournament competitors.
The results of one particular inquiry hammered home what was already assumed.
“That’s the first time they’ve done that — a team questionnaire,” City High coach Bill McTaggart said, “and one of the questions was: ‘Who keeps everybody focused when they get off task?’
“They all said Ashley.”
As one of the most prolific girls’ basketball players in Iowa, Ashley Joens checks all the boxes. She’s the headliner on a City squad that’s ripped through this season with minimal challenges and has cemented itself as a formidable threat to secure the Class 5A title. The Little Hawks (22-1) — which open the state tournament Wednesday against Cedar Falls (21-2) at 3:15 p.m. inside Wells Fargo Arena — have leaned on the 5-foot-11 junior guard in every fashion, using her in the paint, the high post and as a point guard.
Joens’ versatility is reflected in production. She averages a double-double — 21.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per contest — and stands as 5A’s second-leading scorer, despite fighting through double- and even triple-teams on a nightly basis.
Her future? Well, that’s firmly established too. Ranked as ESPN’s No. 16 overall prospect for the 2018 class, Joens’ Iowa State commitment in late November ended a recruitment process that featured countless offers from essentially every Midwest Division I school and others further away.
Stanford was interested, South Carolina too — two top-10 squads in the latest USA Today poll. Her first scholarships arrived in eighth grade.
“She’s pretty solid,” McTaggart said. “She looks like she could play collegiately right now.”
Despite the bevy of accolades and national exposure, Joens doesn’t garner reverence with a boisterous demeanor. She’s not the vocal type, instead commanding respect through a reserved yet firm approach that has kept the Little Hawks grounded.
“She’s really focused, and I think that’s her best quality,” teammate Rose Nkumu said. “She never gets off track.”
That mindset — and Joens’ success that’s piled up along the way — is rooted in a competitive and disciplined upbringing that was established early.
“Every step of the way, Ashley wanted to compete’
Brian Joens has a theory.
“To me, basketball or anything is just like learning a foreign language,” said Ashley’s father, who played basketball at Cedar Rapids Prairie and Kirkwood Community College before coaching for a number of years at Regina. “There are windows of opportunity when your brain cells and your brain are synapsing and connecting and all this and that.
“… In my opinion, people’s brains have already made a lot of these connections with passing and catching, and so I believe that when you start the kids out almost instantly when you’re born — if I roll a ball to a little child and they push it back to me — there are connections going on in their brain. So that makes it so much easier when you’re in sixth and seventh grade. Those connections have already been formed.”
As the second oldest among five girls, Ashley began this progression after her older sister, Courtney — a current freshman guard at Illinois — did the same.
At 6 months, she’d be rolling balls back and forth with her parents. Once that was mastered, it advanced to simple catching and tossing. Then, shortly after being able to stand up and walk, Ashley went through dribbling drills in the Joens’ cement basement — down with the right hand, back with the left.
It was an instant attraction, so much so that Brian had a 40-feet by 40-feet cement pad constructed in the backyard, which served as the family’s personal basketball utopia. Wanting to test out various basketball drills before implementing them in his practices, Brian first had 5-year-old Courtney and 3-year-old Ashley run through them as a visual guide. And once Aubrey — the third-oldest Joens sister who currently starts for City as a freshman — got old enough, she joined in on action as well.
Before long, epic games of one-on-one ensued — usually Courtney vs. Ashley and later, Ashley vs. Aubrey. Most battles carried common themes.
“There were a lot of competitions,” Ashley said with a laugh, “and fighting sometimes.”
Added Courtney: “Almost every time we played, there would be someone hurt or bleeding or crying just because of how hard we went up against each other and how badly we both wanted to win.”
That competitive fire spilled over into the gym, essentially a second home for the Joens family over the years. No matter the focal area — defense, shooting, footwork, ball handling — Ashley rarely struggled with conquering a concept.
Even in the early going, Brian hardly ever had to tell his daughter what to work on. She arrived at the court with a plan in place. By seventh grade, she was already thriving in the weight room as well, lifting weights, doing push-ups, jumping rope and whatever else she could get her hands on.
“Every step of the way, Ashley wanted to compete and work hard,” Brian said. “She loves basketball.”
‘She started to get calls from everybody’
Courtney, in a sense, set the recruiting precedent for her younger sister. She had a Drake offer in eighth grade — Ashley did, too. When schools came over for Courtney’s home visits, Ashley sat in on them, listening and observing. So by the time her own recruitment ramped up, with countless schools delivering their best pitch, Ashley already knew what many of them had to say.
And there were a lot.
After earning first-team all-state honors in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, Ashley already owned a number of Division I offers before she reached upperclassman status. Years spent playing for the All-Iowa Attack produced top-tier exposure, culminating this past summer when Ashley shined and racked up even more collegiate attention.
“Actually at the beginning of the summer,” Brian recalled, “the coach with the All-Iowa Attack asked me, ‘Do you want Ashley to be on the top elite team, or do you want her to be on the second junior team?’ And I said that anytime someone asks you for a promotion, you should take the promotion and work your way to get in there.
“So she took the promotion, and she worked her way up and ended up starting and having a real nice summer for them on that top-level team. And that’s when she started to get calls from everybody.”
A close-knit environment, proximity to home and an overall dedication to women’s basketball gave Iowa State the nod. Although Ashley said she largely enjoyed the recruiting process, wrapping it up before the season started was a nice plus.
“When she was getting recruited, she seemed tense and wanted to make everybody happy, I guess,” Aubrey said. “but now that she found the place that she wants to be, she seems more relaxed and just goes out and plays.”
Dominance in Des Moines?
Which brings us to Wednesday.
Set to make their first state tournament appearance since 2014, the Little Hawks will need consistent helpings of their top-notch performer — much like their first matchup. The Cedar Falls showdown is a rematch from Dec. 9, when Ashley poured in a game-high 27 points en route to a 62-40 City thrashing.
Doing so could add another notch to an already decorated career.
“Ashley’s as good of an all-around player as I’ve seen,” McTaggart said. “Handling the ball, being able to shoot from the perimeter and then taking it to the hole. She’s as good as anybody I’ve seen at the 5A level.
“She can play with just about anybody.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.