|Wartburg's Aryn Jones knows how to attack the basket and attack the net, and is on her second team of the academic year to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Photos by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com; Wartburg athletics
By Nathan Ford
Search for the accolades of a player in the Wartburg women’s basketball team’s formidable starting lineup and you might have to clarify the sport.
Three of the five are Iowa Conference players of the year.
The catch: Two earned that honor in fall sports.
Aryn Jones racked up 442 kills with a .354 attack percentage and was named IIAC volleyball MVP for the second straight year. Morgan Neuendorf scored 13 goals and added five assists on her way to IIAC women’s soccer offensive player of the year honors.
Now they’re preparing for their third straight women’s basketball NCAA Tournament run – and their second NCAA Tournaments of the academic year – as No. 2 Wartburg (27-0) is set to host Webster (20-6) in Friday’s first round at Levick Arena.
“I just think that shows what quality of an athlete we have in our program right now,” Wartburg head coach Bob Amsberry said. “It’s really unheard of.”
It was August 2014 when Neuendorf took what she calls now “a leap of faith.”
On a scholarship to play basketball at Division II Minnesota State-Mankato, Neuendorf found herself missing soccer. A few days before classes started, she decided to enroll at Wartburg, just down the street from Waverly-Shell Rock High School, where she graduated a few months earlier.
In her second collegiate game, Neuendorf scored two goals in a 4-1 win. The temporary plan was to stick with soccer. As she probably knew by then, plans change.
“The (basketball) coaches gave me some time at first,” Neuendorf said. “I just remember, I think it was in (former assistant basketball coach Nate) Oakland’s office and I was like, ‘I’ve talked to (head soccer) Coach (Tiffany) Pins a lot,’ and she was like, ‘I think you can do it. I think it’d be really, really doable for you. We both would be really understanding of your schedule.’ They talked me into it and I was sold. I’m glad they did.”
Neuendorf scored 31 goals and 11 assists in her Wartburg soccer career and was a part of two NCAA Tournament teams, including the 2015 IIAC champions.
An athletic 5-9 wing, she’s averaging 10.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 steals this season.
“It just means a lot to know that that leap of faith I took right before I came back was worth it,” Neuendorf said.
It was sometime in 2013 when Jones heard a rumor that two new girls were arriving at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, for their senior years.
|Morgan Neuendorf is equally adept at handling the ball with her feet or hands.
Wartburg athletics photo (top); d3photography.com photo by Ryan Coleman
She was somewhat familiar with twin sisters Katie and Kristie Sommer of Dubuque Senior, another Mississippi Valley Conference school. She figured they’d be a big help to the Linn-Mar basketball team. Little did she know she’d have five years to play with them instead of only one.
“We were all looking at several other schools as well. Wartburg had the most to offer for what we each were looking for,” Jones said. “Each year, our chemistry has grown. I feel like we flow really well.”
Jones wasn’t set on playing college sports at all before Wartburg volleyball reached out. After visiting a volleyball practice and basketball game, she realized she didn’t want to give up either one.
She’s played on three IIAC championship volleyball teams, starring for the last two. All three made the NCAA tournament. A 6-2 post, Jones is averaging 9.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks this winter.
“To be able to play both volleyball and basketball at a place that not only said I could do it, but highly encouraged me to do it, was reassuring as I was deciding,” Jones said.
Each October for the last four years, Amsberry has started Wartburg women’s basketball practice without a full roster. The last three of those years, he’s known his starting lineup will change by the time conference play begins.
He’s more than OK with that. You can see why with the aforementioned statistics.
“Had it not been that they wanted to play more than one sport, I think those kids are probably higher level in one or the other, whichever one they would have chosen,” Amsberry said. “They’re just a different kind of athlete. I know we’re really fortunate to have all of them.”
Amsberry gave Jones and Neuendorf about a week off after each fall season before they jumped into basketball. For those two, it meant being behind on new drills and plays. Uniquely, they were able to go through that process together.
“I respect (the coaches) so much more as people after dealing with them with that situation,” Neuendorf said. “The fact that they were able to so gracefully be on board and there was never any conflict throughout my four years is really, really amazing to me.”
Perhaps most importantly, their other teammates embraced their different schedules.
“They understand that it’s out of our control,” Jones said. “We would love to (practice both sports) on day one. But that’s just not really an option. They’ve been nothing but helpful with all of that. Each year the transition to basketball has gotten easier and easier. The biggest part of it has been able to have Morgan alongside me.”
It doesn’t hurt that two other starters are multi-sport athletes.
Kristie and Katie Sommer played softball their first three years. Katie was first-team all-conference in 2015 and Kristie was an honorable mention pick last season.
Katie is the third conference player of the year in this equation. She was named women’s basketball MVP for the second consecutive year this week after averaging 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.3 steals.
Another senior, Miranda Murphy (11.4 points per game), rounds out the starting five while two more, Megan Murphy (Miranda’s twin sister) and Abbie Haupert come off the bench.
“We started with a large number and we’re finishing with a large number after four years,” Jones said. “I think that’s something special.”
It is a special class, one that made the Final Four as sophomores in 2015, won back-to-back Iowa Conference titles and now has completed Wartburg’s first ever undefeated regular season with a chance for more.
“I don’t think this group is going to – no matter what happens – look back with any regrets,” Amsberry said. “They made a decision to change the culture here. They’ve done that successfully and they’re really proud to have done that. They will leave a legacy here, regardless of what happens from here on out.”
Next year the players that have watched this class excel like few others before it will step into the spotlight at Wartburg, hoping for similar results.
That goes for multiple sports.
“It’s really exciting to me to know that both programs are that successful and in the right direction for future – hopefully – double-sport soccer-basketball athletes to experience the same thing that I have, because I wouldn’t want to hold that back from anyone,” Neuendorf said. “It’s been awesome.”