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Through trial and tragedy, Iowa’s Ava Jones intent on playing again

Ava Jones knows her road to recovery is a long one, but her optimism is both innate and undeniable. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

On a Tuesday afternoon in late October, Amy Jones shuffles some papers around as she joins the scheduled video chat. She apologizes for being a few minutes late, but no apologies are necessary.

There’s a lot going on in Jones’ life these days as she and her family pick up the pieces and do all they can to regain some normalcy. Jones is working from home in her new role as assistant superintendent/curriculum director of Nickerson/South Hutchinson Schools USD 309 in Kansas, a position she accepted in February after serving as the principal at Nickerson Elementary School since 2016.

“Ava is on her way down,” Amy says about her daughter.

Shortly thereafter, Ava slides into the frame, her curly blonde hair draped down her shoulders. She smiles as brief introductions are shared — it’s difficult to find evidence of Ava sporting anything less than her endearing grin.

Life is vastly different than it was several months ago for the mother and daughter. They are both still recovering from a crash that took place in early July over 700 miles away from home in Louisville, Ky., leaving them in a medically induced coma for more than a week.

While Ava and Amy survived the crash — along with Ava’s younger brother, Creek, who sustained minor injuries — the family is now dealing with the unfathomable loss of a father and husband, Trey, who spent three days in critical condition before he passed away at 42 years old.

Ava and Amy know their road to recovery is a long one — Ava is focusing on walking the same way she did before the crash, while Amy is still bound to a wheelchair and a walker — but their optimism is both innate and undeniable.

“I feel good,” Ava says. “I don’t know when I’ll have surgery, but other than that, I feel good.”

“We’re waiting to find out when to schedule her surgery, but it should be within the next two weeks, on her first knee. So we’re ready to get the ball rolling on that,” Amy adds. “I’m still going to have to have a couple surgeries, and I don’t know when they’re planning on doing that.”

Ava had a stellar junior season for Nickerson in 2022, averaging 20.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Three months following the crash, Ava returned to school on a part-time basis in early October, attending classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and therapy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She’s now a senior at Nickerson High School, where she’s made her name as one of the school’s most prolific athletes ever to walk the halls.

The 6-foot-2 standout became an ESPN top-100 girls basketball recruit in the Class of 2023 following a junior campaign in which she averaged 20.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game for the Panthers. She was also a second team all-state selection in Class 3A on the volleyball court, and in 2021, she was a state champion in the high jump as a sophomore.

But basketball was Ava’s first love, and she’s determined to someday get back on the court. For now, the road is long and arduous.

Just two days before the accident that turned her world upside down, Ava committed to join coach Lisa Bluder and the Iowa women’s basketball program, but she struggles to recall committing after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in the crash that affected her frontal lobe. She followed up on that commitment Wednesday when she signed her National Letter of Intent to join the Hawkeyes program.

News of the tragedy has echoed far beyond the small town of Nickerson and Reno County. A Facebook group of updates surrounding the Jones family has nearly 20,000 members, and people have launched multiple fundraisers to help the family in their time of need, including a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $160,000 to date.

In early October, Bluder raised concerns during an Iowa public board meeting that Ava may never play basketball again. MRI scans at the time revealed that the 17-year-old had torn all four major ligaments in both of her knees.

“I can’t believe she was walking,” Bluder told Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics on Oct. 6. “The doctor said, ‘I’ve never seen a person come in here with four torn ligaments in a knee and not be crying.’”

Wednesday’s signing is proof that Iowa remains committed to honoring Ava’s scholarship, regardless of whether or not she’s able to play basketball again, but Ava is insistent on lacing up her shoes and returning to the court one day.

Driven by the toughness instilled in her by her late father, Ava refuses to give up on her dream.

“Where I’m at right now, I can see myself in the future getting better, getting back to it and working out again,” Ava says. “I’m excited for that, to get back to it.”

Ava is driven by the toughness instilled in her by her late father, and she refuses to give up on her dream. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

‘Ava was obviously the main cog’

Ava first began playing basketball around second or third grade in a rec league when the family lived in Winfield, Kan.

Basketball has always been a tradition in the Jones family. Trey was a star on the court at Nickerson in the late ‘90s, and Amy played the sport herself. Their oldest son, Hunter, also lettered in basketball at Nickerson, so naturally, Ava also grew up admiring the sport.

Jon McLean recalls first meeting Ava when she and his daughter, Josie, were on a travel team together in sixth grade. In seventh grade, Ava and Josie began attending Reno Valley Middle School, which fed into Nickerson High School, and Jon was named assistant principal, athletic director and head girls basketball coach at Nickerson.

“They started playing volleyball together and basketball together and ran track in junior high,” says McLean, who took over as athletic director at nearby Hutchinson High School in July. “So, I’ve known Ava ever since she was in sixth grade.”

By the time the Jones family had moved from Winfield and settled in Nickerson, Ava was in eighth grade when she began playing with Wheat State Elite on the AAU circuit.

It wasn’t until Ava’s freshman year that she and her coaches started to realize there might be a future for her on the basketball court beyond high school.

“She was always tall, and she loved basketball. So you knew that she was probably going to be pretty good, but she was pretty raw,” McLean says. “It wasn’t until the summer of her freshman to sophomore year that I really saw her improvements.”

With each year that passed, Ava progressed more and more on the court, playing in 40-plus games a season during the summer with Wheat State Elite while also putting in time outside of practice to train throughout the year.

During his five seasons at Nickerson, McLean led the Panthers to the state tournament four times, including three appearances in the final four. Ava garnered first team all-state honors as a sophomore and repeated that feat as a junior when Nickerson finished fourth in Class 3A.

Led by seniors Kieryn Ontjes and Alexis Allen, the Panthers’ 2021-22 squad was well-rounded, but Ava was the key to their success, averaging a double-double on the season while receiving most of the attention from opposing teams.

“Ava was obviously the main cog,” McLean says. “She was just really good, just very skilled.”

McLean played Ava primarily in the post due to her height advantage, but on the summer circuit, she played more on the perimeter, allowing her to develop skills in the backcourt.

“A lot of people don’t realize, she was just an extremely hard worker,” McLean says. “That’s why she averaged 15 rebounds per game — she just had a nose for the ball. She did not stand still. She was always around the basket, rebounding the ball. She’s just very active on defense, hard to score on.”

Ava took first place in the high jump in 2021 and second place in 2022. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Away from the court, Ava proved her athleticism year-round at Nickerson. She lettered in volleyball three years and was a second team all-state selection in 2021. Then, in the spring, Ava was a three-time state medalist on Nickerson’s track and field team, which was coached by her father. She took first place in the high jump in 2021 and second place in 2022. She also placed third at state in the pole vault as a junior and seventh in the javelin throw.

Both Trey and Amy were state champions in the high jump in high school, as was Hunter, who now competes at Pittsburg State and is a two-time All-American in the heptathlon.

For Ava, the recruiting process was busy throughout. She initially committed to Arizona State, but after coach Charli Turner Thorne announced her retirement in early March, Ava opted to re-open her recruitment.

After hearing of Ava’s de-commitment, Bluder was all in to pursue Ava’s talents. In April, the 23-year Iowa coach sent assistant coach Abby Stamp down to Texas, where Ava was playing in an AAU tournament, and Stamp was impressed.

“Oh yeah, she’s the real deal,” Stamp told Bluder. “She is a player.”

Ava’s prowess on the boards was the first thing that stood out to Bluder, who was fascinated by her vertical abilities.

“She also pole vaulted, which I thought was so cool,” Bluder says. “I never really met a female pole vaulter until I met Ava, so that was kind of fun.”

Ava was the perfect fit for the Hawkeyes’ up-tempo offense. They projected her as a power forward and were impressed with her ability to beat defenders off the dribble and shoot from behind the arc.

“I was talking to a player after the accident about her, someone we were recruiting, and she goes, ‘Oh man, I remember her. We were playing in Des Moines, and somebody on my team had a breakaway layup. Ava came from behind her and pinned the ball on the backboard,’” Bluder says. “That just expresses how athletic she was, and we hope that she’ll get that back someday.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder began recruiting Ava in April. (James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Whether it was on Zoom or over the phone, Bluder and the Iowa staff were staying in contact with Ava as much as they could until track season concluded. Then, in June, Ava made her first official visit to Iowa City, along with Trey and Amy.

“It’s funny how with some kids, you just have this instant connection,” Bluder says. “You’re like, ‘I want to coach this kid.’ Your personalities just gel or something, and I think she felt the same way about us.

“I know that she went on another visit to Oregon State after us, but I think she already had her mind made up at that point.”

Other schools showed interest — including Colorado, Kansas, Tulsa, Drake, Texas Tech and Oregon State — but Ava had found the perfect fit.

Enthralled by Bluder, Stamp and associate head coach Jan Jensen, Ava waited until July 3 — a subtle shoutout to her father, Trey — and contacted Bluder at 11 a.m. via Zoom to give her verbal commitment.

“Coaches are different everywhere, and so it’s a lot when you’re trying to understand them more. That’s why I chose Iowa,” Ava says.

‘It was all just hard to process’

On July 5, just two days after Ava announced her commitment, she and her family were getting ready for the Run 4 Roses Classic, an AAU tournament at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

The family spent the day touring downtown, including a stop at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where Creek took part in some batting practice. They returned to their hotel at the Embassy Suites by Hilton, where Amy and Trey got drinks for happy hour.

That’s the last thing Amy remembers from that day.

“We were going to go eat dinner, I guess,” she says. “I don’t remember leaving the hotel.”

A little after 8 p.m. that evening, police said video from a street camera showed 33-year-old Michael Hurley driving down West Market Street and running a red light at 3rd Street. From there, Hurley’s car drifted from the third lane through the intersection before jumping the curb and hitting the family of four at the intersection of South 2nd Street and Market.

Hurley allegedly told police responding to the scene that he had just taken Hydrocodone and was “so tired he could not make the turn.”

Ava, Amy and Trey were taken to University of Louisville Hospital in critical condition. Ava suffered a broken back and underwent several surgeries to relieve a brain bleed, while Amy sustained severe traumatic brain injuries and underwent multiple surgeries on her leg. Trey died at the hospital days later on July 8.

Creek, 10, was treated for minor injuries and released from the hospital, and Hunter, who wasn’t with the family at the time of the accident, traveled to Louisville to be with them.

At a pretrial hearing on July 14, police said the video evidence from the street camera showed Hurley drove for about 30 yards before coming to a stop, and he didn’t get out of the car immediately to check on the victims. In fact, he barely made an effort to help.

Trey’s mother, Mary Alice Jones, was also in the courtroom for the pretrial hearing.

“No family should ever have to go through this, and this man should not be allowed to ever do it to another family,” she told a Louisville news reporter. “I hate that it happened to us, but if we can keep any other family from having to go through this, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

On Aug. 31, Hurley was indicted by a grand jury and charged with one count of murder, two counts of first-degree aggravated assault, one count of fourth-degree aggravated assault and operating a vehicle while under the influence. He was formally arraigned on Sept. 6. A new pretrial hearing has been set for Dec. 14.

A little more than a week after the crash, Amy regained consciousness, and Ava had already been transported to the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute in Louisville.

“It was all just hard to process,” Amy says.

For Ava, the rehab process began with physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“For me, it was just being able to move my legs when I wanted them to move and being able to remember stuff,” Ava says. “That’s what we worked on in speech [therapy]. My voice is still gone, but it’s not as strong as it used to be. Speech was the main part of therapy.”

Amy eventually underwent the same therapy for a couple of weeks before an infection in her leg sent her back to UofL.

But after more than a month of therapy, on Aug. 18, the Jones family returned to their home in Nickerson, where they began to reconstruct their lives and grieve.

Back home, the news quickly spread throughout the Reno County community. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

‘Devastation and shock’

Back home, news of the Jones family’s condition quickly spread throughout the Reno County community.

Sifting through what was true and what wasn’t, McLean describes a feeling of helplessness as he and others tried to make sense of the situation.

“It was just complete shock as to what took place,” he says. “In a small community, word of mouth just starts to spread so quickly. Within Reno County, you’ve got Hutchinson High School, you’ve got Nickerson, and you’ve got everybody that’s just at a loss of words and terribly sad.”

On July 10, two days after Trey’s passing, people throughout the community came together at Nickerson High School for a candlelight vigil on the school’s brand-new track. Those who were there held candles and sang “Amazing Grace” as children and adults wrote prayers and wishes for the family. The crowd was invited to write their thoughts on paper and throw them into one of two fires as an appeal to “whatever you believe in.”

Nickerson’s new track was completed this year and was developed, in large part, thanks to Trey’s oversight. On April 6, the Panthers will host their first meet on the new track.

“He had a vision, so he worked with the contractors to carry out that vision,” Amy says. “And he didn’t even get to use it.”

The community came together July 10 at Nickerson High School for a candlelight vigil on the school’s brand-new track, built with Trey's oversight. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

McLean says the family’s resilience in the aftermath of all that has happened is simply a testament to their fortitude.

“That’s just kind of who they are, too. They’re just tough,” he says. “They’re just good, hard-working people. It’s hard to describe. They’ve got a resilience to them. They’ll make the best of any situation. They’re going to do the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. Even though it’s been a horrible hand, they’ll wake up every morning and go to work and just be the best they can be.

“That’s what their father, Trey, would want.”

Beyond that, the news spread far and wide. Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark was one of many who sent out a tweet asking for prayers for the family just two days after the accident, while a GoFundMe account was set up to help aid the family, a fundraiser that’s received more than 2,000 individual donations to date.

“We’d been building that relationship since early April, but our fan base only knew about her for 48 hours. And here they are sending prayers but also financially giving quite a bit to the GoFundMe page,” Bluder says. “I had one booster that reached out and wanted to give them Marriott points so that the extended family could stay down there without having the financial burden of being there.

“It just shows you how special being an Iowa Hawkeye is and how much this community loves our women’s basketball players.”

Countless fundraisers were promoted in a “Jones Family Updates” Facebook group, where those who caught wind of the story were able to track the progress of the family and provide their support.

“It’s meant a lot,” Amy says. “It’s hard to believe that so many people are involved with us and have donated and have helped out and are there and have sent prayers and thoughts.

“I wouldn’t have ever imagined. It’s been so comforting.”

Nickerson students wore specially made shirts to honor track coach Trey Jones during a candlelight vigil. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

On Sept. 17, nearly a month after returning home from Louisville, the Jones family held a memorial service to honor Trey’s life. People from all walks of life were on hand to share stories of a man who left a lasting impact on his community.

Trey was heavily involved in the lives of his children through sports and was a friend to many, often spending his free time hunting and fishing with friends. He was an industrial arts teacher at Nickerson, so whether he was constructing a fence or building a table, he’d regularly be found using his skills to help others as well.

“I can just remember standing out in the hallways with him every morning, greeting kids with him and talking with him,” McLean says. “He’d come in my office — I was athletic director — and we’d just talk sports. I’d go to track meets and watch him interact with the kids and how he coached them. He was just a good man, a good father, a good teacher, a good coach.”

“He pushed me really hard in track and in playing sports,” Ava adds. “He supported me in going to training and lifting weights. He didn’t force me to do anything, but I wanted to be better. Obviously, that’s who he was. That’s how I was, too.”

Ava was a three-time state medalist on Nickerson’s track and field team, coached by her father. (Billy Watson/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

‘It’s really unspeakable what they’ve had to go through’

The road to recovery for Ava and Amy figures to be a long one, but they’re anxious and eager to take their next steps.

While Ava continues working on her reading and memory, she also focuses on breathing and getting her voice back.

They’re unsure whether the damage to her throat was from the crash or from Ava pulling her trachea tube out twice in the hospital while she was unconscious. She also pulled out her catheter twice and her feeding tube at least once.

As far as physical recovery, Ava is trying to regain her strength before she undergoes surgery, after which she’ll likely have to repeat that same process while she recovers. She’s regularly in the weight room and focuses primarily on calf raises and abdominal workouts.

Regaining strength and mobility in her legs will require some time. While she can walk, she isn’t able to walk with the same steadiness she had before the crash.

Once a neurologist clears her to be able to handle the anesthesia, she’ll undergo separate surgeries on her knees and then a surgery on her shoulder. They’re hoping to get it done within the coming weeks.

The road to recovery for Ava and Amy figures to be a long one, but they’re eager to take the next steps. (Sandra J. Milburn/The Hutchinson News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

As for Amy, the road to recovery is equally as uncertain. She’s still unable to walk on her own and will require a major surgery on her leg — a bone graft on her tibia that’s yet to fully heal. Doctors also plan to remove the metal rod in her leg that is festering bacteria, and she expects a six-month recovery period. Following that, she’ll undergo surgery on the ACL and LCL in her other leg before working on her damaged arm, allowing her to touch her head again.

“For Ava and Amy, what they have had to endure physically, and to put on top of that, the mental anguish,” Bluder says, “it’s really unspeakable what they’ve had to go through.”

Ava has tried to turn her own experience with tragedy into an opportunity to help others, as she wants to be a resource to other kids who have lost a parent.

“Not very many people have gone through this, losing a parent,” Ava says. “Not very many kids go through that, so I just want little kids and kids younger than me to feel like they can talk to me. Even kids that are older, they can talk to me.”

Ava understands the challenge that lies ahead of her, but she’s fueled by her dream of playing at the next level and driven by the purpose of fulfilling the dream her father had for her.

“If she can’t play for the first year, then she’s going to be on the sidelines and learning from the sidelines, helping us out and learning our system and our culture and what that’s like,” Bluder says. “I just think the minute she walks out on the floor — and I don’t know when that’ll be — but the minute she does, I don’t think there’ll be a dry eye in Carver Hawkeye Arena.”

Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.