They came to Ames from the North, the South and the East, traveling more than 2,500 miles and 38 hours by road.
This highly touted crop of freshmen – quite possibly the best in program history – came from all over the United States to become Cyclones. Among them are three McDonald’s All-American nominees, five high school state titles and numerous conference and district accolades.
All five players have an 89/100 rating or above, according to ESPN scouts, and each of them is a top 50 player from the 2014 class in their respective position.
“What do I expect to get out of the freshmen? A lot, I hope,” head coach Bill Fennelly said. “I would say four of the five right now are for sure going to play.”
The class is headlined by Emily Durr, a 6-foot guard who loves nothing more than firing from beyond the arc. In her senior season, Durr broke New York’s Section 3 all-time scoring record previously held by Team USA’s Breanna Stewart.
The transition to college could be tough for Durr, who will have to face a longer three-point distance and the physical style of Division I basketball.
“I’m still getting used to the college three, and I’m getting stronger, too,” Durr said. “I didn’t lift in high school because weight training wasn’t a big thing where I’m from.”
Teaming up with Durr in the backcourt will be Nakiah Bell, a quick and athletic point guard from Florissant, Mo., that Iowa State generously says comes in at 5-foot-6-inches. The No. 25-ranked floor general in her class was an honorable mention All-American by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
What Bell lacks in size, she makes up with in skill.
“Nakiah can play the one or the two,” Fennelly said. “She’s undersized, but very, very skilled [and] very smart.”
Blaire Thomas, the player Fennelly isn’t as sure will see a lot of minutes, finds herself in a positioning predicament. The only Iowan in the freshman class played as a forward in high school, but at just under six feet, she’s small by Division I standards. Because of this, Thomas is making the switch to guard, where she’ll fit more naturally in the college game. While she makes the transition, though, she’ll also have to play catch-up with Durr and Bell.
“Blaire Thomas…is probably a little bit behind them skill-wise,” Fennelly said. “Athletically, she’ll be ready, but we’re trying to find a position for her.”
Moving down low, the Cyclones have added two post players who Fennelly said are in the best situation of any freshmen in the country. With the graduation of two-time Honorable Mention All-American forward Hallie Christofferson, Iowa State has questions in its front court, and both freshmen have the chance to be part of the answer.
Claire Ricketts, a 6-foot-3 power forward from Parker, Texas, committed to play for Texas Tech during her junior year of high school, but she decided to re-evaluate when the Lady Raiders brought in a new coach.
“I knew in the back of my mind that this was the program that fit me and who I am,” Ricketts said. “I reached out to [Iowa State] before I officially decommitted, and with everything they did to help me during that, it boosted my confidence in picking Iowa State.”
Accompanying Ricketts down low is Bryanna Fernstrom, a 6-foot-5-inch center from Center City, Minn., with a knack for stuffing the stat sheet. Fernstrom averaged a double/double in points and rebounds her last two years of high school, while also blocking 4.5 opponents’ shots per game her senior campaign.
She also has a unique advantage in being left-handed, which can give defenders headaches as they try to contain her in the post.
“That’s going to be a great advantage for her,” assistant coach Billy Fennelly said. “A lot of post players are very right-hand dominant, so when all of a sudden you’re facing Bry, a kid who’s big, hard to move and gets great position, she’s also going to go the other way on you.”
In spite of the fact that they hail from all over the country, the group has already begun to mesh.
Everyone – from Durr, whose hometown of Utica, N.Y., is more than 1,000 miles away, to Thomas, who comes from less than 100 miles away in Waterloo, Iowa – has been brought together to don the cardinal and gold in Ames for the next four years.
“We’re super tight,” Ricketts said. “I think it’s really cool that all of us are from different areas – none of us are from the same state even. It’s really awesome that we all have a different background, but at the same time we’re super close.”
Though the talent pool is deep with this incoming group, they face a tough challenge in adapting to the college game. Whenever they put on their uniforms, they won’t be allowed to act like freshmen.
“I think the challenge is the separation between understanding ‘I’m a freshman,’ and ‘there’s a learning curve,’ but you got to go in and play,” Bill Fennelly said. “You’re on a scholarship and when the game starts they’re not going to say, ‘Hey, are you a freshman?’ No – they’re going to say, ‘You got to go play’.”
They’ve come far to get here; they hope the travelling isn’t done. It’ll be 700 miles to Dallas for the Big 12 Championship and another 1,400 to reach the ultimate goal – the Final Four in Tampa Bay.
“We always want to win the Big 12 and go to the [NCAA] tournament. Those are the big ones,” Durr said. “We know we’re young and we’ve got to figure some stuff out first, but I think it’ll be an exciting season.
“At the end of the day, we just want to win.”