How Ashley Joens’ efforts to becoming an elite Big 12 player took shape in an Iowa barn

Tommy Birch
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Every now and then last summer, Kelly Larson wandered over to the two-story barn located behind the family’s home to see what Ashley Joens and her sisters were up to.

Larson would lean over the ledge of the barn's balcony and look down into the basement, where a small basketball court was located. There was a weight bench in the corner, a trampoline against the wall and a batting cage off to the side. Oh, and a regulation-size basketball hoop with blue tape on the ground marking the free-throw line.

Larson would find Joens, a star for the Iowa State women's basketball team, swishing shot after shot while working away at her game with her four sisters and her father, Brian. Joens, one of the top returning players in the Big 12 Conference, needed a place to practice during the summer when gyms, schools and practice facilities were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. So Joens and her family would go to local parks, or even Iowa City High School athletic director Phillip Hansen's house. But usually they’d come to this barn, because the Joenses and the Larsons were family friends.

“It was pretty cool to have her here,” Larson says as she walks around the empty court on a cold November day. “I was just like, ‘You are the girl in the Big 12, and here you are shooting away and helping your sisters.”  

Nothing was going to stop Joens this offseason.

She was coming off a strong sophomore year and was so determined to take that next step that she didn't care where she worked out. Most of the time, it meant driving about 15 minutes way from her family’s Iowa City home  to the 10,000-foot square barn owned by the Larson family that is typically used for work, relaxation and working out. 

The Joens sisters practiced at random places including local parks in Iowa City during the COVID-19 pandemic over the summer.

“We knew that even though we had this time off and we didn’t have a gym, that it’s still important that you’ve got to keep improving every day,” Joens said. “Even if it’s little things like just doing ball handling one day or stationary shooting even outside with the wind, or anything like that."

Joens' workout regime is part of the reason why there are so many high hopes for her and the top-20 Iowa State women's basketball team this year. The Iowa City native is preparing for perhaps her biggest season yet when Iowa State hosts Omaha at noon Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum. 

Reaching the next goal, no matter what

Shortly after the 2020 Big 12 Conference tournament was canceled in March, Joens packed her bags and headed home to Iowa City. She met up with her dad and her sisters, who were already at a local gym working out. 

“I always create goals for myself,” Joens said. “My parents kind of instilled that in me when I was younger. Before school would start every year, we’d always get a notebook in elementary school and we’d always write down our goals and everything. So, I kind of continued that.”

Joens posts them on the bulletin board of her Ames apartment. Over the years, the goals have changed. During her first season, Joens wanted to become the Big 12’s freshman of the year. But one goal has always remained on the list: Win the Big 12. Joens, who helped Iowa State to the Big 12 tournament title game her freshman season, didn’t get a chance to accomplish the goal last season because of the coronavirus pandemic. This season created a new opportunity, and new challenges.  

The pandemic sent players across the country scrambling home after campuses and gyms closed. Joens, who couldn’t use Iowa State’s gym while much of the country went into self-quarantine, had to find other ways to work out. She wasn’t going to be denied.

Joens comes from a family of basketball players. Her older sister Courtney played at Illinois. Aubrey is a freshman on the Iowa State team. Kelsey plays for Iowa City High School. Even 9-year-old Bailey is considered an up-and-comer. 

"We weren't going to be stopped and we figured, if it was this difficult for everybody to get a chance to shoot or to do anything and we were doing it, then we'd be so much further ahead of everybody else," Brian Joens said. "And instead of making the excuse of, 'Well, it's just hard to find a place or it's too windy,' we just decided, 'We're going to find a place and get it done.'" 

It wasn't easy. 

Brian and the sisters went to Iowa City High to run on the track. They borrowed a bar from the high school weight room to lift before eventually buying their own set. They played kickball as a break from basketball. They went to Hansen's house, Wetherby Park in Iowa City and even another barn in North Liberty to use hoops. 

But some days it was cold. Other, it was windy to get up shots. Some of the parks had coverings on the hoops to discourage people from playing during the pandemic. The barn in North Liberty became off limits as the pandemic got worse, and the owners worried about having too many people in and out. Iowa basketball star Kathleen Doyle was working out there so the Joenses were out of a spot.

But that didn't stop them, especially Ashley. 

"She was really determined to improve," Aubrey said. 

Iowa State star Ashley Joens was willing to do whatever it takes to get some work in during the COVID-19 pandemic over the summer.

Inside the barn

The Joenses have known Kelly Larson and her husband, Swen Larson, for years. Courtney ran track at City High, while Kelly worked as an assistant. The two families also attend the same church. So, when Brian heard the Larson family had a barn with a basketball hoop, he called them up. 

It wasn't your normal barn, though. It looks like one from the outside, sitting at the end of a long gravel road. The inside is an entirely different story.

Swen, a builder/developer, has an office upstairs. There's also living space, with a kitchen and bedroom. Swen also has an employee who does woodworking there. The basement is where the hoop is. It's partly a play area for their daughter, who has a trampoline, and a workout area for their sons with weights, a batting cage, ping pong table and then the hoop. 

It was perfect for what the sisters needed.

Brian would take the sisters to the barn most afternoons. One of them would shoot, while another would rebound and another would feed them shots. They kept track of their shooting percentages for comparison and competition. The main goal was to get better, though. And they all did, especially Ashley, who broke down film with her father and studied how opponents were guarding her last season.

Together, they came up with some new moves. 

"She looked great," Brian said. 

The sisters moved the trampoline to work in different spots on the court. They shot over a cable line that kept the netting to the batting cage up. The focus was on stationary shooting since the cement floor was slippery. Facing them every day was an Iowa Hawkeyes logo behind the hoop that the Larson family — diehard Iowa fans — had put up. It never bothered them. 

"I guess they were probably just too polite to say anything," Kelly said. 

Brian, who owns an eatery in town called Joensy's Restaurant, brought tenderloins to Kelly as a thank you. The restaurant was where Ashley worked when she was younger, even using breaks to do basketball drills. Brian offered to let Kelly's kids join in. Even though they didn't, they did take advantage of having the Joenses there, watching them work. 

"It became super evident why they're really good," Swen said. "That's just a lot of drilling." 

The Larson family barn is where Ashley Joens and her sisters spent much of the summer training.

Preparing for a big season

The workouts went seven days a week. The girls woke up before their dad at 7 a.m. to begin helping with a youth basketball program run by Brian. The rest of the day included working out and working at the restaurant. It was great bonding time for the five, who rarely have occasions to play together.

No one may have benefited from the time more than Ashley Joens, who is gearing up for perhaps her biggest season yet. Iowa State, which was picked to finish third in the Big 12, was ranked No. 18 in the USA Today coaches' preseason poll and 15th by The Associated Press. Joens, who has started her first two seasons and is coming off a year that saw her average 20.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, is a big reason why expectations are so high. Joens is on a barrelful of preseason award watch lists.

"She's just a fantastic player," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said during the Big 12 teleconference earlier this month.

But Joens may be just scratching the surface. She's gotten better every season, and Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly expects nothing different now, especially after all the hard work Joens logged during the summer. Fennelly said he even sees pro potential in Joens. 

"She's got the toughness, the competitive spirit, the love of the game to be that kind of player, and she's worked hard to become that," Fennelly said.

Now that Joens and her teammates are back on campus and have a place to go, the hard work hasn't stopped. Joens knows that if Iowa State is going to have a big season, she needs to as well. 

"It's really great to be looked at as such a high-profile team, but you can't really get caught up in that," Joens said. "You just have to keep working and getting better each day and trying to improve." 

Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.