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Sports >  Idaho basketball

Vandals’ Klinker sisters proud to be ‘workhorses,’ not ‘show ponies’

Feb. 16, 2020 Updated Sun., Feb. 16, 2020 at 9:22 p.m.

Idaho’s Natalie Klinker, left, and Lizzy Klinker, center, give Eastern Washington’s Grace Kirscher a taste of defense honed in Montana. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho’s Natalie Klinker, left, and Lizzy Klinker, center, give Eastern Washington’s Grace Kirscher a taste of defense honed in Montana. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The concept of paired accomplishment is not unfamiliar to the University of Idaho’s women’s basketball team.

A season ago as seniors and best friends, the euphoniously named Splash Sisters, Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, were rewriting the Vandals’ scoring records. Ferenz was the All-Big Sky Conference player of the year and became Idaho’s all-time leading scorer. Pierce set the NCAA single season record for made 3-point shots, at 154, and was an all-league player.

Now, a pair of actual sisters – and best friends – are carrying on the legacy.

Ferenz and Pierce were smoothly efficient offensive machines. This season, Lizzy Klinker, a senior wing, and her sister, Natalie, a junior post, bring to the Vandals a heavy-hitting ethic of fundamentally sound, power basketball honed in Montana – Fairfield High School, to be specific – where that robust game is not only appreciated but expected.

“They’re both the most physical kids out there,” Idaho coach Jon Newlee says. “They play like Montana kids, rough, tough players.

“That’s something we had been missing, especially in this league, which is such a physical league.”

Lizzy says “being physical takes some people off guard. It shows how defensive-oriented we are this year.”

Lizzy is averaging 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Natalie backs her with 5.4 points and 7.1 rebounds. But defense is where the Klinkers do their best work for the Vandals. Lizzy has 12 blocks and 25 steals. Natalie adds eight blocks and 12 steals. They not only make opponents deal with contact, they are strong enough to force them, on cuts and drives, to settle for less than optimal angles.

South Dakota School of Mines coach Jeri Jacobson, a former UI assistant, characterized the Klinkers as Idaho’s workhorses, not its show ponies, according to Lizzy. The sisters take that as a compliment.

Playing against Montana schools also brings out their best. Natalie hit the boards for seven and five rebounds against the Bobcats and Grizzlies, respectively, in the most recent meetings and made three steals against MSU.

Lizzy grabbed seven boards and scored 13 points against both MSU and UM. She blocked three shots against the Griz.

“That’s kind of a pride thing,” Natalie said. That the Vandals lost those games motivates the Klinkers. Looking towards the Big Sky Tournament, “there’s not a team we played we can’t beat,” Natalie insisted.

The state of Montana doesn’t make a habit of letting its best prep players get poached by rivals.

“It was major for us to get into Montana and get kids. That just doesn’t happen,” Newlee says.

Lizzy, however, started her career at Utah State, and Natalie was swayed by what she found to be a family atmosphere at Idaho, and she was energized by the Idaho coaches’ willingness to push her to be the best player she could be. Supportive Vandals fans were also persuasive.

“There are at least 20 people to hug after games,” Natalie says.

Following two seasons at Utah State, Lizzy, who “never thought I would transfer,” decided to leave.

“I didn’t want to get recruited again. I didn’t want to go through that process,” she says. When Natalie told her how well things were working out at Idaho, Lizzy reunited with her sister and became a Vandal. She redshirted in 2017-18, which allowed Newlee to realize she had skills as a perimeter player as well as inside, he says, and she began her Idaho career last season.

The Klinkers had not played together since high school and club team days. It took a while to regain the intuitive timing of playing with a sister, according to Lizzy. Once that returned “I didn’t realize how cool it was to play with a sibling after almost four years,” Lizzy said.

The sisters are roommates, and “we have gotten so much closer,” says Natalie.

“It’s been so much fun to see her succeed,” Lizzy said. But with only a handful of regular-season games, the Big Sky Tournament, and hopefully, postseason play remaining in their time at Idaho together “it has been crazy how the time has flown,” Lizzy said.

“I try not to think about it,” said Natalie. “I like having somebody there, unconditionally, all the time. I’ve already got a new roommate for next year. It would be so sad to have to live by myself.”

None of this is to suggest the nonstop energy and white-hot competitiveness the Klinkers bring to basketball – that Newlee values so highly – gets checked at the door when the Klinkers face each other.

“We were terrible growing up,” Natalie acknowledged.

“When we were playing 1-on-1, I almost knocked Natalie out. I still feel bad about that,” Lizzy said.

“We honestly can’t finish a 1-on-1 game,” Natalie added.

Lizzy would like to play basketball professionally next year, but her style of play has taken a toll.

“She has played so hard for five years now. In the weight room, she’s always 100 percent,” Newlee says. “The motion never stops.”

In recent games, Lizzy has gone on the court with a pair of knee braces and a strip of black tape on the side of a calf. “I’m held together with adrenaline, WD-40 and duct tape,” she said proudly.

She perseveres, though, in harmony with a sister equally as hard-charging. The Vandals are in second place in the Big Sky at 9-4, 14-8 overall, heading into Monday’s home game against Portland State. They are good in a different way than they were last season when Ferenz and Pierce were filling the nets.

Either way, Splash or Klinker, with a sister act the Vandals are formidable.

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