|Katie Sommer collects a souvenir after the Knights' sectional final win vs. Texas-Tyler on Saturday night.
St. Thomas athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
The Wartburg women's basketball team has been busy. They went on the road the last two weekends and won four games, two against hosts No. 11 UW-Oshkosh and No. 8 St. Thomas. After beating No. 6 Texas-Tyler 80-74 in the sectional finals Saturday, the Knights are busy preparing for their first ever national semifinal. They’ll meet No. 7 Tufts at 5 p.m. ET in Columbus, Ohio this Saturday.
But this incredible run almost didn’t happen.
The Knights were busy planning for this success even before this season started. "We went up to a very talented St. Thomas team a year ago and just really got run off the floor," says head coach Bob Amsberry.
The box score shows he's not exaggerating. St. Thomas beat Wartburg 78-50 and overpowered the Knights in most facets. Wartburg's shooting was almost 20 percent lower than St. Thomas' percentage. The Tommies' reserves outscored the Knights' reserves 33-17. Wartburg had seven assists against 21 turnovers.
"Part of that was by design," remembers Amsberry, "I wanted us to play teams that could show us what the level was. I thought that was a really key game for us because it showed our kids there was a whole other level that we needed to rise to."
A talented group of freshmen from that squad, sophomores this year, got busy getting ready. The hard work paid off with a 12-1 start, including wins over nationally ranked Oshkosh and Wheaton (Ill.) at Wartburg’s holiday tournament. Those invitations were part of the plan to challenge the team with better competition as a means of growing into a nationally competitive program.
"In terms of confidence, beating [Oshkosh] earlier in the year was pretty big,” notes center Kailey Kladivo. "We knew then that we belonged with the ranked teams."
Then they hit the skids, losing five in a six-game stretch in January, all in conference. "To be honest, I thought it probably would [end our chances]," says Amsberry. "At that point in the season I just wanted to get our team prepared for the next game."
At the nadir of the skid, when things seemed to be falling apart, the Knights held an emotional meeting, which players and coach alike credits for the success they've found in the postseason.
|Katie Sommer is 1-for-1 for the Knights' softball team so far this season but she's okay waiting a couple more weeks for her next at-bat.
St. Thomas athletics photo
"We literally went around the room and had each player tell us what their role was," says Amsberry. "Everybody, every single player was right on. We all knew our roles, but I think it was really valuable to speak them, and to hear them, to reinforce them. That meeting was our turning point, because our kids just had so much belief in each other. When we got back to making each other better, then we became really good as a team."
The team rallied, winning its final six regular season contests to finish third in the IIAC.
"Our conference right now is really, really good. It’s the best I’ve seen it in my ten years here for sure and I don’t think it's even close. Our league prepared us for what we’ve done," says Amsberry.
That preparation was painful, though. Wartburg ran into a tough Coe squad in the first round of conference playoffs and bowed out. “It was pretty emotional to play what we did think was our last game,” said Kladivo, one of just two seniors on the squad.
As the Wartburg team mourned the season, they did what they do: they got busy. Sophomores Katie and Kristie Sommer jetted off to Florida with the softball team and Kladivo caught the final meet of the indoor track season, where she high-jumped a qualifying height for the NCAA Championships. Two other members of the team play fall sports. Aryn Jones and Morgan Neuendorf were busy with volleyball and soccer respectively and joined the team after the season had started.
The Sommers were coming off the field between innings in a Feb. 29 contest against Otterbein when the call came in.
"The athletic director said, 'Girls, you gotta go. We have to get you on a plane back to Iowa,' said Katie Sommer, "So me, my sister, and the trainer drove to the airport and got a flight back to Waverly that night."
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Like a special ops team called back for one last mission, the Knights assembled from all over the country to join this quest for a championship. "We knew we belonged in the (NCAA) tournament,"says Sommer. "We knew we were good enough." Adds Kladivo, “Everyone has stepped up in terms of buying into their role and what the team needs of them on a daily basis."
They dispatched a tough Wisconsin Lutheran squad in the first round then found themselves in a rematch with Oshkosh on the Titans' home floor. Wartburg emerged from the weekend victorious, with a near identical score to the first game in December.
When asked what the nation needs to know about his team, Amsberry replied, "That’s the great thing about this group is that they don’t really care who's starting, who's scoring. These kids just want to win. They’re so together and united and selfless that that’s happening. We want to play with good tempo, but we’re certainly not run and gun. We want to pick our spots where we can be effective in transition, but really disciplined. What we hang our hat on is playing half-court defense."
That defense was on display in the sectional round, which saw the Knights returning to St. Thomas, more than a year after their crushing, but educational defeat. This time the Knights shot 10-for-19 from deep and forced 21 turnovers, edging the hosts and proving unquestionably that Wartburg belongs on the national stage.
The win forced Kladivo to give up her high jump hopes – at least for the indoor season – but it was the kind of sacrifice she signed up for as a two-sport athlete. "[Kailey] is just a special athlete," says her basketball coach. "When we recruited her she could've gone in either sport to a higher level. She really wanted to pursue both; her vision was to compete at a national level in two sports. Fortunately that's worked out for her."
The Knights relied on Kladivo last Saturday, using her 22 points and nine rebounds to surge past Texas-Tyler and into the national semifinals. "We’ve really taken a hold, as a team, of this second chance," she said of the tourney run. "We went out and gave it all we’ve got and it’s not done yet."
Katie Sommer hit the last four free throws to keep the game out of reach and seal the trip to Capital. "I like pressure situations," she says. "We have this motto on the team that we have each other's backs. My teammates needed me to make those shots, so I told myself I'm going to make them for [my teammates] – and I did."
"It happened so fast," adds Amsberry, "I never imagined that it could just fly by. You win the first weekend, [get to the] Sweet Sixteen and I was really proud of our kids for that. Then you go to that next weekend and we win our first game. We prepped all night to get ready for the next game and we never even thought about what that meant. As the game wound down on Saturday it began to sink in: Holy cow, we’re going to the Final Four. It still doesn’t seem real."
The work, of course, isn’t over yet. Lying ahead is Tufts – the remaining team that most closely resembles Wartburg with fierce determination and an inside presence in Northeast Player of the Year Michela North who can go toe-to-toe with Wartburg.
"I know they appear to be very, very good on the defensive end," says Amsberry of Tufts. "They’re going to try and make it really hard for us to score. Whoever controls the tempo is going to fair pretty well. They're good every year and they come from a very good league, so we know we’ll have our hands full."
Tufts, Amherst, and Thomas More are pretty well known names in the Division III women’s basketball world. Wartburg is certainly the newcomer. Don’t expect them to act like rookies, though; this has been a long time in the making. "We set a plan. We followed the plan, and the plan worked," says Amsberry.
Can this run continue through the weekend and on to Indianapolis, where the championship game will be played April 4 to coincide with the Division I championship weekend? When asked, Amsberry simply said, "When talent and experience meet, you can do special things."
We’ll find out if it’s enough for a national title, but one thing’s for sure – If you want to beat Wartburg, you better get busy.