Denae Fritz’s rocky road to greatness


Tyler Coe

Denae Fritz attacks the basket against Southern on Nov. 10, 2022.

Christian Royston, Sports Reporter

A packed Hilton crowd falls into a lull as the Cyclones are trying desperately to run away with yet another home win.

Expectations were high for the Cyclones coming into the season, and those expectations weighed on the shoulders of everyone on the team, especially redshirt-freshman Denae Fritz, who was forced to watch her team from the sideline after getting injured early in last year’s campaign.

Now on the starting lineup, it’s her time to shine. Emily Ryan gets one of her signature steals on the defensive side of the ball and rushes down the court to get the offense moving.

A pass to Ashley Joens, who kicks it out to Lexi Donarski in the corner. The opposing defense is trying to keep up with the quick movements of the ball as Donarski kicks it back out to Ryan.

Fritz gets in position for a wide-open look as Ryan finds her in the corner. With no one in front of her, Fritz lets one fly from beyond the arc.


A smile beams on Fritz’s face as the Hilton crowd erupts. The Cyclones needed some energy on offense, and Fritz brought just that as she bounds back down the court, pumping up the crowd. 

“She’s not afraid to show her emotion,” Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said. “I think that’s a good thing. I think our team needs that.”

The team feeds off each other, and no one brings more emotion than Fritz. She had to bottle up that on-court emotion all last year, and now it’s time to let it out.

When asked about what Fritz brings to the team, Fennelly had one thing to say. She has an edge about her, an emotion that can fire up the team no matter how the night is going.

“If I’m walking down an alley down here, I’m bringing Denae with me,” Fennelly said before the 2021-22 season.

That edge shines through in the competitiveness she brings to the court.

Fritz has always been competitive. That competitiveness is what has allowed her to find success in basketball from the start.

Whether she’s fighting for points or battling for rebounds, Fritz gives 110% to everything she does on the court. She’s a starter for a reason, and that’s mainly due to the intensity she brings to every possession.

“To me, it’s like, who wants it more, me or the other person?” Fritz said. “I feel like when it comes to me or somebody else, I’m gonna go get it.”

That competitiveness wasn’t something that just developed overnight. Fritz was born to compete.

Fritz is the youngest of three. From a young age, Fritz was always in the gym; whether she was shooting the basketball or just working on her game, she was always working.

“She was always in the gym just because that’s where her sister was or her brother was,” Fritz’s mother, Carrie Stephens said. “I think she really just developed a passion for basketball.”

One of the first moments Stephens remembered about Fritz’s love for basketball came when Fritz was around four or five years old. 

Growing up on a farm in Iowa, Stephens was used to her family cooking breakfast and eating together in the morning. When she moved her family to Tennessee, that was a tradition she took with her. 

Stephens would cook breakfast in the mornings, trying to rush around and get her kids ready for school, but Fritz had other plans. Although she was just four years old at the time, Fritz needed to get her baskets in.

“I would always be cooking breakfast, trying to get the kids out to school, and I’d be like, ‘God dangit, where is your sister,’” Stephens said, “and you could hear the basketball in the driveway.”

Stephens said that Fritz always had a love for the game, even from a young age. Fritz would constantly be in the driveway or the gym working on her game.

“I’ve never been able to keep Denae out of the gym,” Stephens said. “Not that I wanted to; I just couldn’t.”

It got to the point where Stephens knew Fritz was going to be shooting in the driveway early in the morning, so she would plan to make breakfast 15 minutes later to give her time to get her shots in and still have a hot breakfast before it was time for school.

That drive to play basketball continued as Fritz got older.

“You hear of a lot of parents that force their kids to play travel ball or whatever, and I would always say Denae was like, ‘If we’re not playing travel ball, I’ll hate you guys forever,’ kinda in a joking way,” Stephens said.

Fritz wanted badly to get experience and play basketball on the highest levels she could. She was never forced to play travel ball, as many kids might be. She wanted to play.

Fritz has always had an innate competitiveness. Both her parents were competitive. Her brother and sister also played basketball, which fed her competitive spirit.

“She’s a die-hard competitor, and I love that about Denae,” Stephens said.

As she went up against better opponents, Fritz got better and better. She had to play with the boy’s teams growing up, which forced her to be the best she could be.

Fritz continued her success as she moved on to high school basketball, where she dominated in her time at Maryville High School in Tennessee. She earned district MVP honors in her final two seasons and was named Class 3A Miss Basketball in Tennessee.

It became evident when she went up against strong opponents, such as University of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Fritz could hang with anyone on the court.

“The best person on the team is who she’s most driven and most competitive with,” Stephens said. “That’s how she was growing up. It’s just that innate characteristic about Denae.”

When it came time to pick a college, Fritz knew she wanted to go somewhere where the competition was at its highest. No place quite came close to the competition in the Big 12.

Both of Fritz’s parents had stints attending Iowa State, and Fritz was even born in Ames, Iowa. However, all Fritz knew was Tennessee, as she left Iowa when she was just over nine months old.

Although both her parents were graduates of Iowa State, Fritz didn’t necessarily grow up in a Cyclone family either. Both her parents went to other colleges before Iowa State and also didn’t grow up in Iowa State families.

Fritz’s decision to become a Cyclone was one of her own. It came down to Georgia Tech or Iowa State, but in the end, Fritz resonated with the team and the staff at Iowa State.

Despite the frigid and somewhat unpredictable Iowa weather, Fritz’s transition to college was going smoothly. She was adapting well to the style of collegiate basketball even though it was vastly different from her high school days.

“The pace of the game is a lot quicker,” Fritz said. “You can’t take a single play off. You don’t just walk the ball up the court; it’s go, go, go.”

Fritz was already showing her talents on the court and what she could bring to the team as the Cyclones breezed to an impressive start. Fritz’s best game came against Drake, where she put up 12 points, three rebounds and two assists.

“It finally felt like I got my game back. All the nerves were out from the first couple of games,” Fritz said. “I was relaxing, playing my game, and then obviously, the injury happened.”

Fritz had a stress fracture in her right shin, an injury that would sideline her for the remainder of the year.

All the momentum she had from the first few games was gone. From that point on, Fritz said it felt like she was a step behind.

“It was hard; I won’t lie,” Fritz said. “I only played three games, and that’s never happened to me before in my entire life.”

Fritz is known for not only her competitiveness but her toughness as well. It was the first time she’d been sidelined due to an injury.

However, if it were up to Fritz, she would have kept playing.

Denae Fritz goes for a layup at the ISU vs. Baylor women’s basketball game. Jan. 4, 2022. (Jacob Rice)

“She’s a kid with a ridiculously high pain threshold,” Fennelly said. “I mean, she tried to play through it to the point where it was almost ridiculous.”

Other people would have sat out many weeks earlier. For Fritz, she wanted to stay on the court.

An injury hadn’t stopped her before, and she didn’t want it to stop her then. Fritz played injured her entire senior year of high school, so she was used to playing through the pain.

In the end, she decided it would be best for herself and the team if she fully recovered.

“That was the hardest yet best thing for Denae,” Stephens said.

Taking a year off was hard, especially with how competitive Fritz is. However, the year off allowed her to recoup enough to be at the top of her game when she finally got some college reps. She could finally allow herself to not only physically recover but mentally recover for the first time since she started playing basketball.

Fennelly reminded Fritz that part of being an adult is being honest. Athletes know their bodies more than anyone, so if any part of her was saying it wasn’t ready to hit the court, she needed to speak up.

By doing that, the team was able to ease Fritz back into things and work to prevent injuring her any further. However, doing that meant it would be a long time before she would see the court again.

It was also hard for Fritz to mentally reset to square one after she finally got back on the court.

“You take all this time off, and then you have to start basically over, all the conditioning over,” Fritz said. “I think that was the hardest thing. No workout’s the same as actual live basketball.”

Fritz never got the chance to compete in summer workouts with the team because she was still recovering. Fennelly compared it to baseball terms in the sense of players being injured during spring training. Without that time to ease back into the game, the first three months of the regular season is a sort of spring training to them.

By conference season, Fritz might be into the swing of things, which will be her time to shine. The nerves will be shaken off, and she will have the in-game reps to allow her to start gaining momentum.

The injury gave her time to reflect on not just the road ahead but everything. Basketball, school and life as a whole. That reflection helped her come back stronger than she was before.

“I think Denae just found herself,” Stephens said. “I really think that was the biggest motivator is reevaluating life, school, my long-term goals, family – not that that wasn’t important; that was always important – but I think it was her motivation of reflection.”

It was something of a humbling experience for her. Fritz has always been a humble person, but not being on the court allowed her the chance to grow as a person and a teammate.

One of the biggest benefits of being on the sideline through her first season was that it offered Fritz a different perspective on the game.

“Once you’re sitting on the bench and not able to play at all, it just makes you realize how important each game is. You don’t know when you’re gonna get hurt, if you are,” Fritz said. “It makes you realize that you should be thankful for every game and every minute you get to step out there.”

The injury made Fritz a great teammate. She learned the importance of cheering on her teammates and the energy the bench can bring.

Being a good teammate didn’t stop as she stepped off the court. Her teammates were a great support system for her as she went through the recovery process.

“Your teammates are really encouraging, and they want you back out there,” Fritz said. “So, them telling me that they can’t wait until I’m back out there kinda just kept me motivated.”

That strong support system helped Fritz through the tough times she faced on the bench. It was hard to watch the team find success and come up short at times when she wasn’t able to contribute on the court.

“It was hard to see them go out there every night and play when I had to sit over there and cheer,” Fritz said, “but I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group.”

Denae Fritz and Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw talk on the bench at the ISU vs. Baylor women’s basketball game. Jan. 4, 2022. (Jacob Rice)

Now a year later, Fritz is fully healthy and has been a big reason for the team’s early success. She worked her way back to the starting lineup, which was no easy task given the depth and talent on the team.

Fritz no longer has to sit and watch from the bench; she can be the reason the team reaches new heights. However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing getting back into the swing of things.

With the talent around Fritz, it’s easy for her to let others shine around her, but Fennelly lets Fritz know that she’s a starter for a reason.

“The way I put it to her is, ‘You’re not number five; you’re one of five,’” Fennelly said.

As the season goes on, Fennelly is sure that Fritz will get more comfortable in her role. The injury set her back, and even now, she’s playing catch up.

Despite the slow return to the court, Fritz has shown glimpses of greatness in every game. The only way to go is up, and she’s trending in the right direction.

“It’s not just about the basketball; it really is about watching your kid follow her dreams,” Stephens said. “That’s what it’s about.”

Fennelly is sure that once Fritz gets going, she’s going to be a special player. There’s no ceiling high enough to describe the potential she has.

“She’s a great kid. [We] love having her, and her teammates love playing with her,” Fennelly said. “There’s no doubt in my mind there’s some big things ahead for her.”

The Cyclones gained a winner in Denae Fritz, and she shows that in her efforts on and off the court. Her journey may not have been easy, but she’s still on her way to greatness.

“She’s a great kid with a good fiery spirit,” Stephens said. “I love what she brings to Iowa State. I love it.”