No drama for Wartburg this time around

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Katie Sommer's spring softball season will start a little bit later this season.
Photo by Steve Frommell,

By Nathan Ford

Miranda Murphy and Wartburg won most of their battles this season, if not quite all of them.
Photo by Steve Frommell,

So much about this week feels different for the Wartburg women’s basketball team.

For one, Selection Monday arrived with no drama. No phone calls. No frantic plane-ticket purchases.

Just an experienced team soaking it all in.

Eighth-ranked Wartburg knew it was in the NCAA Tournament with its 25-2 record and Iowa Conference tournament championship. It learned a trip to St. Paul, Minn., and a first-round game against Chicago at 5:30 p.m. local time on Friday was next.

No drama.

“In the conference room where we watched it, Coach (Bob Amsberry) even mentioned, ‘This is so great having everyone together,’” Wartburg junior point guard Katie Sommer said. “It was a special moment to be able to share our reaction together … rather than being all in different states.”

Katie and Kristie Sommer spent Selection Monday 2016 coordinating a trip home. Thinking the basketball season was over, the twin sisters and dual-sport athletes were playing for Wartburg’s softball team in Florida.

But Wartburg’s name was called, and what happened next is what the Knights hope won’t be different this time around.

The Knights, 19-7 entering last year’s dance, rattled off four straight wins and shocked Division III by advancing to the Final Four for the first time. They cut down the nets at Schoenecker Arena on the campus of the University of St. Thomas following wins over the Tommies and Texas-Tyler. That building just so happens to be their destination this weekend.

“No question, us being successful up there gives us confidence going back up there,” Amsberry said.

The Knights have been confident all season. For a team that had just two seniors, last year’s run set up big expectations for 2016-17.

So far, Wartburg has followed through, winning the IIAC with a 15-1 record and claiming the conference tournament with an 81-68 victory over rival Luther at home Saturday.

“This year we do have a target on our back, but if we continue to play to our strengths, if we continue to be us, the best version of us, I don’t think anyone can beat us,” Katie Sommer said.

The road has featured only minor blips, nothing like last year’s 1-5 start to conference play.

The Knights lost their best resume-building opportunity and likely chance to host the first weekend with an 87-84 defeat to Washington U. in late December – a game in which they admittedly played very well. The lone conference loss came Jan. 18 at Luther, 66-61, and was followed by a lackluster 61-50 win at Nebraska Wesleyan.

Since then: nine consecutive double-digit wins in which the Knights averaged 82.4 points.

“I felt like the NCAA run to the Final Four might have been easier in some ways than winning our conference title the way we did,” Amsberry said. “Last year we played well for periods throughout the season, but we hit a run in two weeks. This year we’ve hit a run over an extended period of time, so I’m really proud of that.”

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find another team with zero seniors that clicks like this.

Amsberry knew he had a special recruiting class with this year’s juniors. They started playing right away as freshmen, and now they’ve already left quite a mark on campus with still likely two more postseasons left.

“Their freshman year, it was trying. It was hard. It was a lot of learning,” Amsberry said. “Once they kind of got through that and got some experience, I think then it was time for them to really make the program their own. Last year we did a lot of work rebuilding our culture.”

Katie Sommer averaged 8.3 points for that 17-11 team. Her assist to turnover ratio was 2.4 to 2.8.

“I remember my freshman year, being the point guard and I wasn’t terrified, but it was like, ‘What do I do!?’ I gained a lot of confidence being that leader on the court,” Sommer said.

This year Sommer leads the Knights in scoring (14.3), assists (5.6), steals (1.7), 3-point percentage (44.2) and – get this – rebounding (5.7). She’s 5-5, mind you. Again, it’s that confidence.

“I know that people might underestimate me as the little girl on the court but I’m going to go get those rebounds,” Sommer said.

“She has come a long, long way,” said Amsberry of the potential IIAC MVP that now has an assist to turnover ratio of 5.6 to 2.7. “Her ability to set up her teammates is what makes her really special. I would like to see the numbers of how many points she either scores or assists. We broke our school record again for 3’s in a season (now 230), and I would guess the majority of those are coming off Katie assists.”

Sommer and Amsberry both ecstatically point to a lineup full of scorers and a motto of “We need each other” as a key to success. Miranda Murphy (13.2), Kristie Sommer (11.7) and Morgan Nuendorf (10.4) average double figures and the other starter, IIAC volleyball MVP Aryn Jones (9.9) might as well. All are juniors.

“This year has been very special. Not to take away from last year, but this year has been really, really special,” Katie Sommer said. “These girls – our junior class, we’ve stuck together this whole run. We’ve become really close-knit. I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world. These girls are unbelievable. We all have different strengths.”

Of course there is the sobering reality that this weekend could end differently than last year. St. Thomas, after all, is undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country.

After last March, though, the Knights feel like they can beat just about anyone.

“We’re ready to take anyone that comes our way,” Sommer said. “We’re not worried. We’re confident and we’re ready to go.”