WAVERLY — Amsberry’s Nine will do for a working title. Wartburg College’s surprise run into the NCAA Division III women’s basketball Final Four has the makings of a green-lit sports movie.
The plot is a season salvaged off life support by a group of athletes that had moved on before reuniting to accomplish an ambitious goal.
The script has more than final credits left to be written. At 4 p.m. Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, Wartburg will play No. 7 Tufts College for an opportunity to compete in the national championship game at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Pacers.
It’s a trip that seemed as probable as catching a flight to Mars after Wartburg lost by six points to former assistant Nate Oakland’s Coe College team in the opening round of the Iowa Conference Tournament.
The league hadn’t produced an at-large NCAA Tournament qualifier since 2012, and Wartburg hadn’t been included in the field since 2002.
The Knights were a third-place team with five losses during conference play.
“We pretty much thought our season was over,” senior center Kailey Kladivo said. “Coach (Bob Amsberry) came into the locker room and said there is still a chance. He didn’t know how big it was, but he kind of gave us a glimmer of hope. At that point, it was hard to buy into it.”
As spring break approached, members of Wartburg’s team went their separate ways.
The following weekend, Kladivo set an Iowa Conference indoor meet record when she cleared 5 feet, 7 inches in the high jump to post a top five national qualifying mark. Twin sisters Katie and Kristie Sommer joined the school’s softball team on a season-opening spring break trip to Clermont, Florida.
There was no watch party in Waverly when the NCAA Division III championship field was streamed through a Monday afternoon online selection show. Then, in a surprise that sent shock waves throughout the Iowa Conference, Wartburg received an at-large selection over a Luther team that had won the league’s regular-season title and reached the tournament finals.
Wins over nationally ranked UW-Oshkosh and Wheaton during a December Holiday Tournament gave Wartburg a higher regional ranking for the selection committee to validate the bid.
“I’m student-teaching this semester so I watched it from my classroom,” Kladivo recalled.
“Just a big smile,” the Traer native added. “We were all texting each other through our group text. We were really excited to get back together.”
Starters Katie and Kristie Sommer didn’t see the texts until later that day. They were competing in a softball game when Wartburg athletics director Rick Willis — in town watching his son play baseball — came over and informed them of the news.
“It was in the middle of an inning and Rick Willis comes down to our game and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go. You got in (the tournament),’” Katie Sommer recalled. “Our coach dismissed us. Me, my sister and mom, we got a flight back to Waverly that night.”
It was an unconventional start to a week of NCAA Tournament preparation.
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“I think it was good for us because it gave us that break to clear our minds and relax,” Katie Sommer said. “When we found out, we were all jacked up and ready to go. ... Coach was saying we belong. That became our motto.”
Wartburg’s players have proven their coach accurate as the Knights have led throughout the majority of their four NCAA Tournament games. The Division III postseason schedule included back-to-back weekend tilts with Wartburg winning true road contests at UW-Oshkosh and St. Thomas.
“I felt like we’ve been in control of every game that we’ve played,” Amsberry said. “I’m just really proud of our team for believing in each other. We do belong, they know we belong, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. We have a great balance between being really focused and playing really loose.”
Competing at full strength has been a major factor during Wartburg’s run. Starting forward Miranda Murphy has missed time with ankle and thumb injuries, while Kladivo — a center who ranks among the school’s career top nine in points, rebounds and blocked shots — suffered the third concussion of her career midway through the season.
During a stretch in which either Kladivo or Murphy was unavailable or playing limited minutes, Wartburg lost five out of six games. Instead of folding, the Knights regrouped.
“We had a big team meeting one night instead of practice and sat down and kind of re-evaluated some things,” Kladivo recalls. “We all knew we were better than how we were performing.
“Overall it was a very good, open conversation. There wasn’t a stigma of I’m older, you’re younger. Everyone was on equal ground and really took what other people had to say to heart.”
One of the changes Wartburg made during this stretch run included Aryn Jones replacing Kladivo in the starting lineup. Kladivo and Shell Rock native Morgan Neuendorf are averaging 24 points off the bench for a team that may be one of the deepest in the nation.
“Aryn Jones did a great job while I was out,” Kladivo said. “She really took on her role as a dominant five player. I think it was great that coach left her in that starting position.”
Wartburg’s unselfish attitude was revealed last weekend as five different Knights scored at least 10 points in the Sweet 16 win over St. Thomas, and five reached at least nine in the Elite Eight victory against Texas Tyler. Katie Sommer has set a single-season assists record with 127.
“We have seven players averaging seven points or more a game and any of those seven are capable of putting up 20,” Amsberry said. “It’s hard for teams to key on any one player.”
Once the realization set in that his team would be advancing to the Final Four, Amsberry walked to the end of the bench and savored the closing seconds of Saturday’s Elite Eight.
“That was really the first time I could just enjoy it,” he said. “To see the emotion our kids showed was so rewarding to me.”
It’s been a fairy-tale ending for seniors Kladivo and Bobbie Burrows, accompanied by seven sophomores who have contributed throughout the tournament.
“Losing in the conference tournament and kind of thinking we were done really helped us build a strong bond together,” Kladivo said. “We’ve really made this national tournament run selflessly. We don’t care who gets the accolades or scores. We just want to win and support each other.
“We’re taking this second chance to heart. We understand this is a very special opportunity we’ve been given, so we’re just trying to give it the best shot we’ve got.”