Culture change has Wartburg two wins from title

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Wartburg bench
The Wartburg team, including Abbie Haupert, Ally Conrad, Miranda Murphy and Aryn Jones signal as Kristie Sommer's 3-pointer heads toward the bottom of the net.
Wartburg athletics file photo

By Pat Coleman

WAVERLY, Iowa – Building a championship culture isn’t something that happens overnight. It requires commitment. It requires investment, and sacrifice.

And it requires talent.

Wartburg The seven seniors who lead the Wartburg women’s basketball team have all of that, and a commitment from each one of them which started three years ago, after the group’s freshman year.

When Katie and Kristie Sommer, Miranda and Megan Murphy, Morgan Neuendorf, Aryn Jones and Abbie Haupert were being recruited to come to Wartburg, the Knights were wrapping up a 12-15 season. The program was consistently qualifying for the Iowa Conference tournament, but not much more could be said. But when they arrived, Katie Sommer got into the lineup right away, and Kristie Sommer, Neuendorf and Miranda Murphy each played significant roles.

That team went 17-11. The hunt was on for more.

To hear each of them, and coach Bob Amsberry, talk about culture might well bring back flashbacks of ineffective managers in your corporate setting talking about building consensus or leveraging synergies. Swap out the word “commitment” above and insert “buy-in” to get the picture.

But that’s not what’s happening here. There’s no corporate-speak going on in the Wartburg locker room. The Knights’ culture, or chemistry, just speaks volumes, and drives this team, which is 31-0 and will face Bowdoin on Friday in the national semifinals in Rochester, Minnesota, to its success.

“We really work on it off the court,” Neuendorf said after the Knights’ 65-61 win vs. East Texas Baptist on Saturday night in the round of eight. “These girls aren’t only my teammates, but they are all my friends. I deeply care about each and every one of them. I think that’s what really fuels our game off the court is that all of us have each other’s backs.”

“We all trust each other,” Miranda Murphy added. “We spend a lot of time together and have developed respect for one another. We go out on the court and want to do our best for the gal next to us.”

“We’re selfless. We play for each other,” said Katie Sommer. “Any one of us could go off for 20 points a game. We don’t care who scores the points. We’re going to celebrate each other’s successes on the court and get the job done.”

Morgan Neuendorf and Katie Sommer
Morgan Neuendorf and Katie Sommer laugh as they wait for their names to be called as the starting lineups are announced before Wartburg's second-round game vs. George Fox.
Wartburg athletics photo

It’s not just that every night a different player steps up. In some cases, it varies quarter by quarter. That was driven home well on Saturday night. With Wartburg’s Levick Arena packed to the gills and people standing around the top balcony level, East Texas Baptist came out hot, hitting its first five shots while Wartburg missed 10 of its first 13 and trailed 15-7 after the first quarter. So Sommer came out and led with her shot, rattling in a 24-footer from the wing to cut the deficit to five. Neuendorf followed with a 3, then Sommer stripped the ball from ETBU’s Madison McCoy and went hard to the basket, hitting the layup and drawing a foul to complete the three-point play and give Wartburg a 16-15 lead.

“We were struggling offensively and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get this spark going,’ ” Sommer said. “My teammates trusted me and my teammates told me: ‘You’re going to hit your shots. They’re going in. Shooters shoot.’ ”

Later on, it was Neuendorf, who scored 11 of her game-high 19 points in a nine-minute span of the second half. But as the Knights watched their lead evaporate, going from 16 points to two in the matter of three and a half minutes, it was Sommer again, this time leading with her voice, bringing the team together during a late stoppage in play.

“ ‘Let’s finish this thing. We’re moving on, let’s go.’,” was how Sommer recalled it after the game. “It’s just a special moment we’ve got to share. We’re just so excited about this opportunity we have in front of us and we’re going to go get it.”

Amsberry assembled this class, one he calls “the perfect storm all at once,” all from the state of Iowa, all within 100 miles of campus, in fact. The Murphys’ dad, Mike, is still one of the top 10 scorers in the men’s basketball program’s history and played for Buzz Levick, the former coach for whom the Wartburg arena is named. The Sommers twins played at Linn-Mar High School, outside Cedar Rapids, about 75 miles down the road, and Amsberry had recruited them since their sophomore year, at basketball games but also track meets and volleyball matches. Jones was a high school teammate of the Sommers at Linn-Mar. Neuendorf, whom Amsberry had known since she was in junior high, originally enrolled at Minnesota State-Mankato before coming back home to Waverly in order to play both soccer and basketball.

“We worked hard to build these relationships,” Amsberry said, talking about the recruiting portion of the equation. “And then when they got here, we coached them to change the culture, but they still had to make that decision to go with it.

“Our culture wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a championship culture. And they wanted to win a championship.”

At Wartburg, the best way for a coach to learn about championship culture is to walk down the hall. And that’s what Amsberry did. Jim Miller, who was at the helm for nine of Wartburg’s Division III wrestling national championships, weighed in. So did Marcus Newsom, the coach who has led Wartburg to numerous top 10 finishes nationally in track and cross country.

“I think you have to coach culture every day,” Amsberry said. “Even today, we know that chemistry is fragile. I learned this earlier in my coaching career, that if you don’t pay attention to it every day and just assume that it’s going to keep going, then it goes away.

“It’s just about reinforcing the things that you want to see, and not being afraid to confront the things that bring us down or hold us back. It can’t come from just the coaching staff. It has to come from the players. And they know that, and they do that.”

And they’ve fulfilled that three-year-old goal, getting to the Final Four. And unlike in 2016, when the Knights were a Cinderella team and took so long to get accustomed to the level of play that they got shut out in the first quarter of the national semifinal vs. Tufts, they are in position to make the next step and take home the national title.

“None of us had any idea what was going on,” Amsberry said. “It was bright lights and we made the most of it but we had no clue what that was all about. We just took in that experience. Now we know. That was part of us growing up and finding out what it’s like.”

Another reason it will be different will be fan support. The last step in the long journey is a much shorter trip, one of 103 miles up U.S. 63 to the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota, for the 2018 Division III women’s basketball Final Four. And for a team that packed an 1,800-seat arena on Saturday night, there should be plenty of black and orange in the stands for Friday night’s semifinal vs. Bowdoin.

And, along with fulfilling their goal, the trip will serve as the learning experience for the younger players that 2016’s trip was for the current senior class, giving the team the chance to extend the culture to a new generation.

“We had the mindset coming in as freshmen that we’re going to change this program, we’re going to do something big,” said Katie Sommer. “And we stuck to that. We put the hard work into it.

“We created this culture and we’re protecting this culture that no one can touch.”

Katie Sommer on the bench