November 5, 2023
Jenna Clark, Yale’s ‘heartbeat,’ is ready for a big senior season
After a junior year marked by change, the All-Ivy point guard gets a senior season of continuity
When Yale women’s basketball opens its season at Pittsburgh on Nov. 7, a raucous crowd will be on hand to celebrate Bulldogs senior Jenna Clark, a Pittsburgh native and two-time All-Ivy League selection. Clark’s mom Amy is inviting former coaches, teachers, teammates, and kids Clark coached — “every person I’ve probably ever spoken to in my life,” Clark told The Next, with barely a hint of exaggeration.
While those supporters will be there to honor Clark’s career to date, they will also be eager to see what magic the quick, flashy point guard creates next. She’s already set Yale’s single-season assists record and guided the Bulldogs to the four-team Ivy League Tournament. She’s been a top-10 finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which honors the nation’s best point guard.
Still, Clark has even bigger dreams for her senior season, including lifting trophies and rewriting record books — and no one around her is betting against her.
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Clark started playing basketball around age four or five, and she fell in love with it almost immediately. She was small but athletic, and her dad Jeff put her through dribbling drills in the basement to develop her skills as a point guard.
By her teenage years, she was a standout, setting Thomas Jefferson High School’s career assists record with 412 and scoring over 1,000 career points. Allison Guth, then Yale’s head coach, noticed that blend of scoring and facilitating.
“I really thought she was Pistol Pete-esque, you know?” Guth told The Next, referring to the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, Pete Maravich. “I thought she really had a unique ability, and you could tell she studied the game. [She] was crafty with her size and skill set.”
When Clark visited Yale, she felt in her gut that it was right for her. She noticed the closeness of the team and how she fit in so easily, without any of the typical awkwardness of a recruiting visit. She sensed that Yale overall was less “cutthroat” and more supportive than other elite colleges, and she felt at home there.
“When she committed,” Guth said, “… that felt like such a highlight, like Yale was going to be in an amazing place because of it.”
The 5’7 Clark entered a program that was building under Guth, who had been hired in 2015 and led the Bulldogs to the Women’s Basketball Invitational title in 2018. As a freshman in 2019-20, Clark played behind senior Roxy Barahman, a two-time First-Team All-Ivy selection, and averaged just 0.9 points in 8.4 minutes per game.
It was an adjustment for Clark, who, by her own admission, had been the go-to player her entire life. But crucially, Guth said, she “didn’t let it shake her confidence,” and she got better on both ends from opposing Barahman in practice. The Bulldogs finished third in the Ivy League that year, in position for an Ivy League Tournament berth, but the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season prematurely.
Months later, with the 2020-21 season in jeopardy, Clark decided to take the year off from Yale. She filled some of that unstructured time with Instacart shopping and an internship, but mostly she was in the gym. She wanted to get stronger, create more separation to get shots off and develop countermoves to evade defenders.
As a sophomore, Clark put those improvements into action as the Bulldogs’ starting point guard. She took huge leaps in nearly every statistical category, averaging 11.2 points, 5.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 36.2 minutes per game. Yale’s offense had her mostly playing in pick-and-rolls, forming a lethal tandem with 6’5 junior Camilla Emsbo, or taking spot-up jumpers. She was extremely efficient on catch-and-shoot jumpers, and she was similarly effective at penetrating and scoring on occasional isolation plays.
That season, Yale finished third in the Ivy League again with a 9-5 record, and Clark set the Bulldogs’ single-season assists record with 160. She assisted on 38.4% of Yale’s possessions while she was on the court, which ranked 12th in the country. Her favorite target was Emsbo, who she connected with on 32% of her assists.
“Jenna Clark is a special point guard,” Emsbo, now a graduate transfer at Duke, told reporters in October. “… She’s somebody who gets a lot of joy out of finding her teammates and making them look good, which is a rare skill.”
As Clark chased the assists record, about half of her teammates were aware of what was happening, and the other half had no idea. When she heard she’d done it, Clark burst into tears.
“It was definitely a huge moment,” she said, “and just kind of a moment for me to reflect on like, ‘Wow, I’m here. … Everything I’ve worked for, it’s starting to pay off a little bit.’”
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With a season as the starter under her belt, Clark was seemingly poised for an even bigger junior year. But she faced major upheaval, first with Guth departing to coach Loyola Chicago and then Emsbo tearing her ACL before the season started.
Clark said she and her teammates felt “kind of lost for a little bit” after Guth left, but when Dalila Eshe was hired, the coach and the point guard had a nearly instant rapport. “The first time I met her, I was like, ‘I feel like I’ve known her for years. I feel like she recruited me,’” Clark said.
Eshe was familiar with Clark and many of her teammates’ skill sets, having served as a Princeton assistant coach before taking over at Yale. She had also gotten a taste of Clark’s personality in a game at Princeton during Clark’s sophomore year.
“I remember distinctly,” Eshe told The Next, “… her coming down the floor, and she dimed Camilla and said something to her like, ‘That’s why I love you, babe.’ I was sitting on the bench and I heard her say that, and I’m like, ‘This kid is a character.’ Little did I know she is totally the life of the team … just incredibly pleasant and goofy and everything you want her to be.”
Eshe changed a lot from what Guth had done on both ends of the court, Clark said. Defensively, Eshe wanted “almost [the] polar opposite” of what the players were used to with Guth. And offensively, though Eshe likes to run in transition, she slowed things down last season while the team adjusted to her system.
With Emsbo unavailable, Clark also had to find a new favorite target. The day Emsbo got injured, Clark called the remaining post players and told them she knew they could fill the void. In practices, she developed better chemistry with them, and Emsbo helped coach both sides through the process.
Amid so much change, Clark almost equaled her sophomore-year assists total with 145, fourth-best in program history. She averaged a nearly identical stat line of 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, and she even reduced her turnover rate from 26.4% to 20.9%.
“Going into her junior year with a new coaching staff and now take away [Emsbo] … she maintained, and I don’t think people talk about it that much,” Eshe told reporters in October. “She maintained her level … and I just think that’s incredible. It’s very hard across the board what she was expected to do last year.
“And so now just being comfortable after going through a year of adversity, the sky is the limit. … I feel lucky to be able to coach her and to have her as my point guard for my first two years as a head coach.”
As Clark’s junior season progressed, through a Thanksgiving trip to Emsbo’s home state of Colorado and a road win over archrival Harvard in January, Eshe and Clark continued to develop their bond. They are honest with each other, and Eshe can coach Clark hard. At the same time, Clark knows when to take her coach’s frustration seriously and buckle down — and when to lighten the mood. Sometimes when Eshe is upset with her, Clark will come over, pat her on the arm and say, “It’s okay, Coach!”
“It’s like … one of your children where you’re so mad at them,” Eshe said, laughing. “… I’m like, ‘Jenna, get away from me!’”
“Me and Coach D, we have fun,” Clark said.
Meanwhile, Guth watched several of Yale’s games last season from afar, cheering Clark on but unable to help herself from silently “coaching” her former point guard.
“I’m [thinking], ‘Aw, Jenna, you know you got this look,’” Guth said. “… And I see her thinking the same thing in the next play.”
Guth added, “The best compliment I can give is, God, I miss coaching that kid.”
Yale just missed a return trip to the Ivy League Tournament last season, finishing fifth with a 7-7 conference record. When the Bulldogs lost a crucial game against Penn, Clark sobbed in her mom’s arms, knowing exactly what it meant.
This season, nearly everyone returns for the Bulldogs, and they are all more comfortable with the staff and Eshe’s system. Now, they can add layers to their schemes, and they plan to run in transition, which should unlock Clark’s offensive capabilities even more.
When Eshe told Clark that she would let the Bulldogs loose this season, she also warned her that they would have to practice it every day. “You guys are gonna be tired in practice,” Eshe said.
“I got you, Coach,” Clark responded. “I’m so excited.”
Transition suits Clark’s game well: She “never gets tired,” according to teammate Nyla McGill, and she can make quick decisions to pass or score. She’s also fearless, willing to throw high-risk, high-reward passes and usually comes out ahead. Eshe told The Next that she’ll often get frustrated with a turnover from Clark, only to check the stat sheet and see that her point guard has twice as many assists as turnovers.
“I love running,” Clark said. “I love getting out, throwing the ball, trusting my teammate to go get a bucket. … It’s just gonna change our entire identity.”
“I want her to be an extension of my thought process, and I don’t want to put [too much] structure on her,” Eshe said. “… She is best when she is allowed to just kind of go and feel the game.”
This summer, Clark interned for Dog is Human, a company that develops multivitamins for dogs, but still spent hours in the gym. Her main focus was on consistency — both to improve her production and because she knows her demeanor sets the tone for her team.
“I think I have all the tools. I have the capabilities to be a great player at all times,” Clark said. “But I think sometimes it goes up and down a little bit because I don’t always have the same form, I don’t always have the same footwork and I don’t always have the exact same rhythm.”
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Yale averaged just 59.5 points per game last season, which ranked in the bottom quartile nationally. To help boost that number, Eshe is asking Clark to score more, and she’s noticed in the preseason that Clark is taking over more offensively. Clark was also relied on offensively last season without Emsbo, but balancing scoring and facilitating at the college level is more intuitive for her now.
Eshe has also seen Clark reach another level as a leader. “Even just her growth from last year through this summer to the beginning of this year, she has grown exponentially as a leader — just unbelievable,” Eshe said. Clark understands how to lead both in group settings and in quieter moments, pulling a teammate aside and knowing just what to say.
For her part, Clark said she’s gotten more confident as a leader as she’s gained experience. As a younger player, she sometimes second-guessed whether she should speak up. “[Now I] know what I’m saying is gonna help my teammates and know that they trust me,” she said.
“She’s always vocal,” McGill told reporters. “You can hear her voice from a mile away. And [we know] that she’ll always have the energy to continuously talk to us and continuously lead us.”
In the preseason, Clark was voted Yale’s captain, which her coaches and teammates saw as both a huge honor and wholly unsurprising. “I knew that would be in her future,” Guth said.
In her final season at Yale, Clark wants to avenge last year’s finish by making the Ivy League Tournament, winning a conference title and playing in a national postseason tournament. Individually, she wants to lead the Ivy League in assists for the third straight year and rank in the top 10 nationally. She’s come close to the latter before, ranking 16th in 2021-22 and 22nd last season.
She also has her eye on Yale’s career assists leaderboard: Her current total of 318 ranks seventh in program history, and it’s a safe bet she’ll get the 78 she needs to move into second place. (She would then need another 150 to tie the program record of 546.)
“We all have lofty goals,” Eshe said. “… My biggest expectation is that she leads us where we want to go. And she’s obviously always totally been bought in, but she, I think, even understands the bigger picture and what her role is … as kind of our heartbeat and our guide more on the court. And I think that she is really ready for the moment.”
“I’m really excited to see how she leads that team this year,” Emsbo said, “because I think there’s another level for her, and I think she’s just about to reach it.”
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Those expectations, from Clark herself as well as those around her, could create pressure for a player who knows her days in a Yale jersey are numbered. But this is Jenna Clark, the player who finds joy in every assist and in streaking up the court in transition. “She loses herself in the sport,” Guth said. “And I think that’s just so special.”
One play that reliably gets Clark excited is a backdoor pass — the more crowded, the better. “Through two people, a pass right on my teammate’s hand and a good finish, that gets me hype,” Clark said. “Even in practice, I’ll start jumping around. Coach D just loses her mind at me.”
“I tell her all the time,” Eshe said, “although she drives me nuts, I don’t know what I’m gonna do without her next year.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.