Previewing the best of the West

Wartburg guard Katie Sommer is ready to lead the Knights on another charge through the IIAC. Which teams have the best chance to knock them off?
File photo by Steve Frommel,

While you’ve been locked in on the football playoffs or polishing off Thanksgiving leftovers, you might have missed basketball season tipping off.

To get you caught up, here are some preseason West Region superlatives.


Most Exciting Team: Whitman

The Blues are ranked No. 1 to start the season after suffering their only loss last year in the national semifinal game. After winning 31 games last year and ranking third in scoring margin (16.1), Whitman brings back its top eight scorers – led by reigning West Region Player of the Year Tim Howell – and has all the makings of a buzzsaw.

The Blues have scored at least 113 points in all three wins this season, and while stiffer tests certainly await in the Northwest Conference, you can expect this team to score a lot.

Whitman plays at a fast pace and defensive pressure is its hallmark, but the offensive efficiency is there. It scored 1.15 points per possession last season, well above average. Of course, easy baskets come more often when you’re averaging 12.5 steals a game, as the Blues did last year.

With the preseason expectations in mind, anything short of a national championship might be considered a disappointment. If you read the first installment of Around the Nation, you’ll know the Blues are far from focused on that.

Most Likely to Exceed Expectations: St. Thomas

It will always catch my eye when a team coming off multiple championships isn’t picked to repeat. Let alone a team coming off 12 championships.

St. Thomas has won or shared the last 12 MIAC titles, and while being picked to finish tied for second with Bethel and behind St. John’s in the preseason coaches’ poll shouldn’t qualify as a snub, it’s tough to sit here in November and predict someone else to top the league alone in February. UST loses All-American point guard Grant Shaeffer, but two starters are back, including Ryan Boll (14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds) and if any program has shown the ability to reload, it’s the Tommies under Johnny Tauer.

It helps that we saw this group take then-No. 13 Marietta to overtime at the Great Lakes Invitational before losing by two. Boll had 39 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in that one by the way.

Honorable mention to Whitworth, which is already ranked 13th after being left out of the initial top 25. The Pirates have to replace all-region picks Kenny Love and Christian Jurlina, but knocked off then-No. 12 North Central (Ill.) in Hawaii, 75-72, as part of a 5-0 start.

Sophomore Ben College is averaging 18.8 points while hitting 50 percent of his 3-point attempts (19 of 38) in the early going.

Best Bet for a Turnaround: Crown

For a program that hasn’t had a winning record in recent memory, it’s difficult to call last year’s 8-17 mark a bad year. But in 2013-14, the Storm were 12-15, including 8-6 in the UMAC and quickly plummeted, averaging just over five wins the next three seasons.

After pushing UW-Stout and No. 14 Wartburg to the final minute in the opening week of the season and dismantling Iowa Wesleyan and Cornell, Crown looks like a team that could approach the top half of the UMAC this year.

The Storm return double-digit scorers Timothy Wendel (18.1, 7.2 rebounds), Austin VanDerHayden (15.9, 7.0) and Josh Volness (11.1) and are picked to finish fifth in the league.

Most to Prove: Wartburg

The Knights were one of the best postseason stories of in 2017, going from the No. 6 seed in the Iowa Conference to the NCAA Sweet 16. They were rewarded with a No. 21 preseason ranking and have since moved up to No. 14 after a 4-0 start.

But Wartburg lost Jordan Cannon, the program’s second-leading scorer, and Nick Webber, who is fifth all-time in assists and first in games played, to graduation and will need other playmakers to continue the upward trajectory sprung over the course of a few weeks last spring.

Cam Kickbush (18), Nate Woeste (27) and Sawyer Herman (26) recorded career-highs in three separate games this season, and it’s that type of balance that can keep Wartburg – picked to finish third in the IIAC – in the top 25 and make a run at 2017 co-champions Nebraska Wesleyan and Loras.

Most Anticipated December Games

No reason to get ahead of ourselves here. Here are five games to circle before the new year.

Bethel at St. John’s, Dec. 2: The two teams most likely to keep St. Thomas away from the top of the MIAC. And, wow, the start of the league slate for the Royals…

St. Thomas at Bethel, Dec. 6: They shared the MIAC title last year, but St. Thomas won both meetings and Bethel earned the tournament crown.

Bethany Lutheran at St. Scholastica, Dec. 9: They finished a game back of Northwestern in the UMAC last year and are picked to go 1-2 (CSS the favorite) this season.

UW-La Crosse at No. 14 Wartburg, Dec. 10: The Eagles are 4-1 with a win over St. John’s, so they might be Wartburg’s toughest out-of-league foe.

No. 10 UW-River Falls at Northwestern, Dec. 16: Northwestern is off to a rough 1-3 start this year, but you know the Eagles will be eager to take on a top-10 opponent at home.

Nebraska Wesleyan at Grinnell, Dec. 30: Bonus! Points on points on points.


Most Exciting Team: Wartburg

All five starters are back from a team that went 25-2 in the regular season before bowing out in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This senior class is the same group that led the Knights to a surprising Final Four berth in 2016.

Led by preseason first-team All-American point guard Katie Sommer, Wartburg is the clear favorite in the Iowa Conference again. The fourth-ranked Knights (3-0) should really click when fall athletes Morgan Neuendorf (soccer) and Aryn Jones (volleyball) work their way back.

Honorable mention to Gustavus Adolphus, which returns all-conference picks Mikayla Miller (16.6 points per game) and Miranda Rice (16.0) after going 25-3 last year, including 17-1 in the MIAC. Miller is also a fourth-team preseason All-American.

Most Likely to Exceed Expectations: Bethel

“Exceed expectations” might not be the most applicable term for a team that was 22-5 last year and is picked to finish third in the MIAC. “Continued progress” makes a little more sense.

The Royals only faced league champion St. Thomas and runner-up Gustavus Adolphus once in the regular season and couldn’t quite make their mark, then lost to Gustavus in the conference tournament and were left out of the NCAAs.

This year Bethel gets UST and Gustavus twice and it’s not hard to see the Royals getting in the mix for title contention, especially after they beat George Fox last week. Four freshmen and sophomores were on last year’s all-MIAC team and two of them return to Bethel this year with some experience. If Taite Anderson and Hannah Johnson take the next step, this team can make some noise.

Best Bet for a Turnaround: Nebraska Wesleyan

The Prairie Wolves finished a game shy of the conference tournament in their first year in the IIAC, but return plenty of experience to make a run at the top half of the league.

Wartburg and Luther look like the top two teams, but NWU will have plenty of experience as well.

Led by sophomore guard Caitlin Navratil, a second-team all-conference pick last year, NWU brings back its top nine scorers from 2016-17 and is off to a 4-0 start. Last year was already a turnaround for the Wolves, who won five, three, two, two and four games the previous five years. They’re poised to take another step forward.

Most to Prove: Whitman

Nothing comes easy in the NWC, which was why it was surprising to see Puget Sound go 16-0 last year … and unsurprising to see the Loggers fall in the conference tournament.

Whitman enters this season as the favorite and highest-ranked team nationally (No. 8) after a run to the Elite Eight last season. With No. 17 Puget Sound and perennial contender George Fox returning key pieces, the pick is far from a sure thing.

A big year from Casey Poe, who averaged 11.0 points and was first team all-conference last year, would help. She’s already been named player of the week in the conference after averaging 23.5 points and 4.5 assists in two wins last week.

The Blues won’t have to spend time talking about going undefeated after losing to Eastern Oregon in the season-opener – last year they won their first 14 games before an OT loss to Puget Sound. Let’s see if they can assume control of one of the nation’s toughest conferences.

Most Anticipated December Games

No. 19 Puget Sound at No. 8 Whitman, Dec. 2: Casey Kushiyama returns to Walla Walla as the head coach of Puget Sound after spending the last five years as a Whitman assistant. The Loggers were unbeaten NWC champs in 2017, but the Blues had the most success in March.

Bethel at No. 11 St. Thomas, Dec. 6: Bethel’s first crack at one of the MIAC’s top dogs.

UC-Santa Cruz at George Fox, Dec. 9: The Slugs need to take advantage of every chance they get at beating West Region powers. Another opportunity comes Dec. 19 against Wartburg.

No. 11 St. Thomas at No. 12 Gustavus Adolphus, Dec. 13: Can Mikayla Miller and Miranda Rice help Gustavus shake up the MIAC race? Or will UST show it’s still the frontrunner?

Wartburg Holiday Tournament, Dec. 29-30: No. 4 Wartburg welcomes No. 12 Gustavus, No. 14 UW-Whitewater and UMAC favorite UW-Superior for what should be a fun two days of basketball – and a resume-builder for someone. It’s Wartburg-Superior and Whitewater-Gustavus in the first round.


Best New Arena: Coe

Coe opened new 2,000-seat Kohawk Arena. We’ll miss the charm of Eby Fieldhouse, but the total facilities project cost $21 million and is a significant upgrade with a new arena, wrestling room and weight room.

Best New Logo: Cal Lutheran

The old “CLU” mark was nice, but the new sword, shield and crown is even better. It befits one of the best nicknames in Division III: Kingsmen and Regals.

Runner-up to Whitman, which, with the switch from Missionaries to Blues, unveiled a much flashier logo.

Most Impactful Transfer: Claire Marburger to Luther

The former Valparaiso commit led the Iowa Conference in scoring at 20.1 points per game last year for Central and gives the Norse more firepower as they try to keep pace with Wartburg.

Marburger, a 5-10 forward, also averaged 8.5 rebounds last season and leads the Norse with 18.0 points and 9.3 rebounds so far this year. They’re 2-4, but have played a tough schedule.

Breakout Potential: Josh Ruggles of Loras

Coming off heart surgery, Ruggles made his Loras debut in December and averaged 9.6 points for the Iowa Conference co-champions.

With a full offseason of training, he should have an even bigger impact this season. Ruggles tied his career-high with 27 points in a loss to Concordia-Wisconsin, then set it in the next game with 37 in a win over Ripon. The 6-2 guard is averaging 24 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the 3-1 Duhawks.

Best Way to Share Your Story: Contact Me!

I’m always looking for players and coaches to feature, whether they’re having special seasons on the court or have unique stories to tell. Feel free to reach out via email ( or Twitter (@NathanTFord) with story ideas.

Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to in 2013.