Rockford’s greatest girls basketball players No. 1: Nothing but respect for Sophie Brunner

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The greatest girls basketball player in area history came down to Amanda Levens’ greatest rival and her greatest recruit.

Levens was a three-time All-Stater at Belvidere and a two-time first-team All-Pac-10 choice at Arizona State, but shot 38.2% for her career. That drops her behind Aquin’s Sophie Brunner, whom she recruited to ASU, and Jenny Crouse, who led Freeport to undefeated NIC-9 titles in Levens’ freshmen and sophomore seasons.

Brunner, a 6-foot-1 forward, ranks second in ASU history in rebounds, third in scoring and eighth in field goal percentage (.523). The 6-3 Crouse, named one of the five greatest NCAA Division II players in history, remains North Dakota’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocked shots and field goal percentage (.624).

So who better to determine No. 1 than Rockford’s No. 3 all-time choice?

Except Levens, now the head coach at Nevada, was unwilling to choose.

“They are both great in their own ways,” Levens said. “Sophie was smaller, but that kid can just rebound out of her area in such a special way. They are very different in how they play, but they are both winners. Whatever they were a part of, they won.”

Brunner led Aquin to back-to-back Class 1A state titles in a four-class system. Crouse’s Freeport teams finished third in Class AA in the old two-class system, going 65-3 in 1994 and 1995.

“But Jenny played at a large school; you don’t know how much she could have influenced a smaller school,” Levens said.

The opposite then became true in college. Brunner led ASU to four consecutive NCAA tournaments, but Crouse led UND to three national championships, the only three in the school’s history.

“Jenny had kind of a cool story with college,” Levens said. “She went to a place because she wanted to be a pilot. She could have had her pick of wherever she wanted to play. When she was at Freeport, they were always the team to beat. If you wanted to win, you had to go through Freeport and you had to go through Jenny Crouse and her arsenal.”

In the end, our nod went to Brunner over Crouse as the greatest girls basketball player on both our Rockford and Freeport lists. Levens and Brunner are the only two local players to be named first-team all-conference in a Power-5 women’s basketball league, and Brunner was All-Pac-10 each of her last three seasons. Brunner is also the Sun Devils’ all-time leader in rebounds in the NCAA tournament (70) and second in scoring (112 points), made the Pac-12 All-Academic teams three times and was a two-time honorable-mention All-American.

Brunner, now a substitute teacher in Rockford who is working on her masters in elementary education, credits Levens, the associate head coach when she was at ASU, for some of her success.

“Amanda will always be one of my favorite coaches,” Brunner said. “She’s a true competitor and one of the smartest persons I know in terms of basketball. I would not have been anything in college or my pro career without her.”

Brunner and former Rockford Lutheran star Stephanie Raymond are the only Rockford-area players to play in the WNBA, but Brunner played briefly in only three games for the Phoenix Mercury and one for the San Antonio Stars in 2017. She then played pro ball in Italy for two years, but came home last season when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She doesn’t plan to go back.

“I think I’m going to be done,” Brunner said. “My team had asked me to come back for another year, but I said no because I wanted to get into teaching.

“It was a lot of fun, though, just being able to experience everyday life overseas.”

Playing at Aquin was always fun, too. The Bulldogs’ second title is the most remembered one, thanks to a 39-38 state semifinal victory over an Annawan team that featured the two oldest of three NCAA Division I VanHyfte sisters. That Annawan team would win state the next year by 36 points. But Aquin won this game, picked as the second-best girls basketball game in both Freeport and Rockford area history, on a Brunner put-back in the final seconds.

But Brunner’s favorite title was the first one, when she teamed with her older sister, Ellen, to help the Bulldogs win every playoff game by double digits.

“That was so much fun,” Sophie said. “We had a good connection on the court. We grew up with each other and used to make plays when we were little in the driveway. ‘If I screen here, you go there.’ We did it all the way through grade school and junior high. Ellen and I would always do pick-and-rolls or just lob plays. In high school, I knew if I threw it up down low she would catch it. Winning state together is one of my most favorite basketball memories.

“That group was just special. We were all good friends and had a lot of family ties on that team. It was a really fun year. We knew we had something special.”

In her senior year, Brunner scored Aquin’s last eight points to rally the Bulldogs from a 33-31 deficit. That’s something rival NUIC coaches had seen many times, as she finished with an area-record 2,541 career points.

“She was impossible to deal with,” former Eastland coach Colleen Finn-Henze said. “Even when she had a bad night and wasn’t scoring much, she found other ways to beat you. Sometimes she just missed shots. That was the only hope you ever had. And she didn’t miss shots often.”

Dakota beat Aquin once in each of Brunner’s freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, edging the Bulldogs for the NUIC East title her junior season. Two weeks later, No. 10-ranked Dakota led Aquin 29-25 with 10 minutes to play in the regional final.

Brunner then made back-to-back coast-to-coast three-point plays, started after she blocked a shot and grabbed a steal.

“That was it. We couldn’t recover,” Dakota coach Kevin Cline said.

Former Aquin coach Jeff Curry, who died in 2017, called Brunner the NUIC’s best passer after that game. “But I wish she wouldn’t pass so much,” he said. “I wish she’d shoot the ball every time she touches it.”

And Brunner was most dangerous of all in the open court. Cline called her “a freight train” after that 2012 loss.

“She was anything but a center,” Cline said. “She was just a basketball player, pure and simple. So many of those years, she was one of their primary ball handlers. She would bring the ball up court against pressure, then hand it off and go down on the block. You couldn’t stop her there. She did everything.”

Everything in college included being named to a Pac-12 all-academic team three times and to its all-defensive team once, besides finishing with 1,405 career points and 921 rebounds.

“Defense was hard for me,” Brunner said. “We played a zone in high school and man all four years a ASU, so I had to adjust. I also had to maintain a higher fitness level.”

She adjusted quickly, going from one of the smallest high schools in the state and immediately making an impact at the biggest college any former NUIC star had ever played for.

“I just became a better learner of the game, learning how to read stuff, be more efficient with the ball,” Brunner said. “Every day, I was learning from my teammates and coaches, how to be a better passer, a better ball handler, a better shooter, how to be better on defense.”

She even learned a turnaround jumper, which she used to hit a pair of game-winning shots at the buzzer for the Sun Devils.

“I had to understand how to get better shots, so I learned little things, watching a lot of film, and seeing how other undersized players did it,” Brunner said. “I was aggressive. I went for it. I didn’t care if people I was going against were 6-foot or 6-5. I was just going to go for it and see what happened.”

And everywhere she went, a small crowd of Sophie Brunner fans would follow. Whether that was a couple of hours away in Milwaukee for a Marquette game or even home games at Arizona State.

The greatest girls basketball player in area history is also probably the most popular.

“Sophie always had a winning attitude. She still does,” said Finn-Henze, whose daughter, Erin Henze, wore Brunner’s No. 21 at Eastland and led the Cougars to a 1A state title last winter. “People followed her in college all the time. Even at Arizona State, tons of people were watching and cheering her there, too. It’s heart warming and cool.”

“She’s just an amazing person,” Dakota’s Cline said. “Usually when you have an opponent that is that difficult to beat, you love to beat them. But you could just not dislike Sophie. There is no way you could do anything but respect her.”

Matt Trowbridge: [email protected]; @matttrowbridge



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