Barry McNamara  |  Published February 24, 2023

Wait ’Til Next Year

Local standouts Ashley Jones, Kynlee Stearns hope to finally play together as Fighting Scots next season.

HIGH SCHOOL RIVALS: Abingdon-Avon product Ashley Jones (left) and Knoxville grad Kynlee Stearns a... HIGH SCHOOL RIVALS: Abingdon-Avon product Ashley Jones (left) and Knoxville grad Kynlee Stearns are used to playing against each other. Delayed a season, they hope to be on the court together for the Fighting Scots' 2023-24 campaign.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Although Abingdon and Gilson are just 10 miles apart, two freshmen on Monmouth College women’s basketball team from those Knox County communities have spent very little time together on the court as teammates.

“We’ve known each other since middle school,” said Abingdon-Avon product Ashley Jones of her relationship with former Knoxville standout Kynlee Stearns.

But the Knox County duo – who were both three-year varsity starters in high school and who are both studying psychology at Monmouth – never had the opportunity to play on any of the same travel teams or all-star squads, despite their proximity.

“We never really talked,” said Stearns. “We kind of became rivals.”

After playing together in some open gyms at the start of the fall semester, Jones and Stearns were officially united on the same court on Oct. 16 at the first Fighting Scots practice of the season.

It was a short-lived union.

At the close of that initial session, Stearns injured her knee. She first thought it was simply a hyperextension and, after a full day of rest, decided to give it another go on Oct. 18.

“I went down again,” said Stearns, who was a strong contender to earn a starting role as the Scots’ point guard, a position she excelled at with the Blue Bullets. “I had to start using crutches.”

After having to wait several days to get an MRI, Stearns heard another three-letter acronym she was dreading – ACL. She’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, and her season was over after just two practices.

“It was the last drill of her first practice,” said Monmouth coach Megan Jones (no relation to Ashley). “For some reason, that tends to be the time when injuries happen.”

Jones said Stearns has the qualities desired in a point guard.

“After watching her in our pickup games, the upperclassmen were really excited about her, because point guard was a position we needed to fill,” she said. “The point guard role can be very mental at times, and Kynlee was showing that she had a high basketball IQ. She can accomplish a lot here. She’s a great athlete and is naturally gifted in terms of speed and quickness. We were pretty bummed she wasn’t able to take advantage of her opportunity this year.”

“Kynlee was showing that she had a high basketball IQ. She can accomplish a lot here. She’s a great athlete and is naturally gifted in terms of speed and quickness.” Coach Megan Jones

A former collegiate player who overcame three knee injuries and five surgeries, Monmouth’s coach feels for Stearns.

“It’s hard for me to see kids go through that,” she said.

“I’m just trying to make my quad as strong as possible,” said Stearns of the recovery process from her Nov. 17 surgery.

She still attends team functions, and she’s progressed to the point where she can work on free throws and form shooting. Stearns hopes to be cleared to run at some point in March.

“She says she feels good, like she can run again,” said Coach Jones, “but I know all too well from my experience that you have to let the recovery timeline run its course.”

From ‘rocky’ to solid

Form shooting is also something that Ashley Jones plans to address in the offseason, as she’d like to improve her accuracy from the charity stripe.

“I’ve never been good at free throws,” said Jones, an honorable mention all-stater for the Tornadoes. “Coach told me I need to work on my form. I think my defense could also use some work.”

Her 48% accuracy from the foul line is one of few holes in her game. She was on the court for all of Monmouth’s contests, averaging 6.5 points and 3.0 rebounds to go with 28 assists and eight blocks.

DRIVE TIME: Ashley Jones makes a move to the basket during one of her first games as a Fighting S... DRIVE TIME: Ashley Jones makes a move to the basket during one of her first games as a Fighting Scot.Since the start of the new year, Jones had some of her biggest games. She netted a season-high 17 points in a three-point win against Lawrence. The 5-foot-8 guard, who listed “driving to the hoop” as one of the biggest strengths of her game, also helped the Scots edge the Vikings in the rematch, netting 16 points as Monmouth won 52-48.

“At first, it was a little bit rocky. I was nervous on the court,” said Jones, who didn’t post her first double-digit game until Dec. 30. “But once I got to know the other girls, it got better for me.”

“She’s really good off the dribble, and she’s a good rebounder, too, with a great knack for the ball,” said Coach Jones, who just completed her second year leading the Scots. “She struggled at first with the transition to the college game and didn’t have the confidence early on. Around mid-year, you could see that she had that added confidence.”

The next step in the wing player’s game, said her coach, is working on the ability “to score at all three levels. The more she works on her outside shot, the harder she’ll be for other teams to scout.”

The Scots closed the season Feb. 14 with a loss at Cornell, finishing 6-10 in the Midwest Conference and 10-15 overall. But there are several reasons for optimism, as Jones and Stearns are part of a large freshman class that will be together for three more seasons.

“I think our seniors really showed us a lot about leadership. That’s going to help us be leaders next year. We should have a really young team.” Ashley Jones

Classmate Audrey Law has come off the bench to score 5.3 points per game, and Ella Goodrich, Madison Heisch and Allie Hoy all gained valuable experience, each playing at least 300 minutes in their rookie seasons. Mix in a new recruiting class next season plus a healthy Stearns, and the Scots are poised to make it back to MWC playoffs, for which they’d qualified in the previous three full campaigns.

“I think our seniors really showed us a lot about leadership,” said Jones. “That’s going to help us be leaders next year. We should have a really young team.”

The connection between Jones and Stearns off the court has grown – “We’re good friends now,” said Stearns – so now it’s just a matter of getting the former Knox County standouts together on the hardwood.

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