|Emma Gerdes, who started eight games last season when Morgan Neuendorf was injured, was the most experienced player returning from Wartburg's Final Four team and now averages double figures in scoring and leads the team in assists and rebounds.
Wartburg athletics photo
By Nathan Ford
In Levick Arena, where Final Four banners from 2016 and 2018 hang prominently, the thought has crossed Bob Amsberry’s mind.
“Looking back,” the Wartburg women’s basketball coach told D3hoops.com this week, “that might be the biggest win in the history of our program.”
The NCAA Tournament game he was talking about? None of the above.
It was actually a Wartburg Holiday Tournament championship game. No. 23 Wartburg 60, No. 3 St. Thomas 40. It’s the highest-ranked team Wartburg has ever beaten, and it did it with not just a new core, but an entirely different starting lineup than last March.
Dec. 30, 2018 was such a monumental day for Wartburg because the most influential senior class in program history – 96 wins in four years, eight in the NCAA Tournament – wasn’t on the floor.
“With that senior class gone, I think a lot of people questioned how good we could be,” said Amsberry, now in his 12th year at Wartburg. “I always knew we had talent, but how does it come together?”
Start in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a few minutes down the road from Wartburg’s campus in Waverly. That’s where the Knights found Adrienne Boettger in their 2015 recruiting class. It’s where Emma Gerdes came from in their 2016 recruiting class. And it’s where Ally Conrad was before joining the 2017 recruiting class.
All three are now starters for the Knights (17-3, 10-1 American Rivers Conference) and keen on maintaining the winning ways with which they’ve become familiar.
“It’s really fun. We all know each other like the back of our hands,” Gerdes said. “We’ve been playing with each other forever. It’s really cool to be able to play with two other girls that I feel super comfortable with.”
That helps when the team is breaking in five new starters, including a pair of transfers. Tori Hazard came from Simpson, while Amanda Brainerd joined from Division II Wayne State. Another contributor, Waverly native Payton Draper, also transferred from Wayne State.
“We knew it was going to be different,” said Boettger, one of two seniors on this year’s team. “We lost seven girls and every one was a key player on the team. Coming in, there were a lot of things up in the air but there was one thing we wanted to keep the same and that was our culture.”
The culture looks the same, but Amsberry acknowledged the Knights “play a little bit differently.”
Eight players averaged at least 10 minutes per game on last year’s team, including Boettger, Gerdes and Kaitlyn Volesky; 10 do this season. That was evident in Wednesday’s 68-49 win over Loras that bumped Wartburg back into first place by itself in the ARC. Defenses were mixed and substitutions were frequent as the rotation went 10 deep. Wartburg followed with a 40-point win vs. Central on Saturday.
All-American Katie Sommer was the leading scorer on last year’s team and also accounted for one-third of the assists. Boettger leads the team in scoring now, averaging 13.2 points from the block. She dominated Loras with 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting Wednesday.
Meanwhile, ball-handling is a little more fluid. Gerdes is the team’s assists leader despite starting in an off-guard role and Hazard (8.5 points per game) is second as a forward. Conrad is the point guard but, like the other starters, has the size and athleticism to disrupt almost anyone and create offense in different ways.
Wednesday night, Gerdes, who averages 11.8 points, had four as she deferred to hot hands Conrad (15 points) and Katie Lindeman (11), who both scored nearly double their averages (5.9 and 6.4, respectively).
“You take a kid like Katie Sommer off the floor, we relied on her to set people up all the time,” Amsberry said. “We don’t really have that kind of player, but I think this team is a better overall passing team. We share the ball really well. It’s been fun to build, for sure.”
That’s not to say it’s all been smooth. The Knights lost to Illinois Wesleyan and UW-Eau Claire in non-conference play and had their 32-game league winning streak halted by rival Luther 75-63, just 10 days after the St. Thomas win. Wartburg turned it over 23 times against the Norse.
“I think the Luther game ultimately really helped us,” Boettger said. “We talked as a team about how we wanted the rest of our season to go. Everyone has really bought in and given effort to what that’s going to look like.”
Players and coaches don’t think much else has changed in the ensuing weeks, but the wire-to-wire victory over the Duhawks (15-4, 8-2) displayed a level of focus that was also evident in the other four games of what’s now a five-game winning streak. Wednesday’s 19-point margin of victory was the closest in this stretch. In their previous game, on Jan. 21, the Knights hit 16 of 23 3-pointers in an 89-65 thrashing of Coe.
“We just go day by day like we always have,” Amsberry said. “We know that it’s hard to win every night. You move on and keep working. We’ve worked really hard before that game, and since that game, on becoming a great team and what that means”
That team has climbed to No. 18 in the D3hoops.com Top 25. It now leads Loras, Luther and Simpson by one game in the loss column, with road tilts remaining against the Storm (Jan. 30) and Norse (Feb. 6).
Naturally, everyone is gunning for the two-time defending champions, even with new faces.
“I think the league is starting to get more respect,” Amsberry said. “Part of it was the runs that we made, but our league prepares us to play anybody. Really good teams, good coaches.”
Katie and Kristie Sommer got used to that target. So did Aryn Jones and Morgan Neuendorf, Miranda and Megan Murphy. They also all grew to know what they were capable of, a lesson in confidence this group of Knights appears to be developing.
Take Gerdes, who struggled at times against the Tommies with 10 turnovers. But she also scored a career-high 27 points and, like the rest of her teammates, defended. She picked up three of the team’s 10 steals (Wartburg is averaging 9.3 per game) as UST shot 30.4 percent for the game.
“I think it just showed us that we can play with one of the best teams in the country,” Gerdes said, “and we can be one of the best teams in the country.”