By Marty Farmer
When Ed Stritzel was hired to coach the Nazareth Academy girls basketball team in 2016, it was only a matter of time before he would transform the program into a winner with state title aspirations.
After all, he amassed a 236-51 record over nine seasons at Trinity (winningest coach in school history) before accepting the Nazareth job.
In only his second season at Nazareth, Stritzel has the Roadrunners on the fast track to becoming a perennial powerhouse.
"Nazareth is a state power in football," Stritzel said. "The way I'm wired, we want to build the girls basketball program into a state power year in and year out. Nazareth hasn't been known for basketball, but we're trying to change that."
The Roadrunners (19-2) feature a lineup loaded with talent. Annie Stritzel, a 5-foot-11 junior and Ed's daughter, is one of the best players in the country for the Class of 2019. A combo guard/forward, she averages 27 points, six rebounds, four assists and five steals per game. She's also attracting a ton of recruiting interest from colleges.
"Annie is a dynamic scorer," Ed Stritzel said. "She can score in many ways. She hits outside shots, has a post up game and can take the ball to the rack."
Like Annie Stritzel, the rest of the Roadrunners' top players transferred from other high schools. Alyssa Geary, a 6-foot-4 senior center, is a fellow transfer with Annie Stritzel from Trinity. Both players sat out a semester last season before playing about half a season.
"Alyssa is having an amazing senior season," Ed Stritzel said about the Providence College recruit. "With her skills, she's a matchup problem for teams. She's been dominant at both ends of the floor. Alyssa is blocking six shots per game, which is unreal at any level of basketball."
Geary is averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds along with the aforementioned six blocks.
"I think our strengths as a team are the overall bond we have with one another," Geary said. "We all get along and we all have each other's back no matter what happens. I think that correlates strongly with how we do on the court."
Marissa Metz (6-2 senior forward) and Jovanna Martinucci (5-6 junior guard) are other high-profile transfers from Downers Grove South and Queen of Peace, respectively.
"Marissa makes us go," Ed Stritzel said. "She's a great leader and a fun kid to coach. Jovanna has done a nice job for us in the backcourt."
Metz, who will play college basketball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is a versatile stretch-four. She averages 10 points, four rebounds and three assists. Defensively, she can guard multiple positions.
"With the players we have, we knew that we were going to be one of the stronger teams not just in (Class) 3A but 4A," Eddie Stritzel said. "One of our major goals was to make sure the girls play well together and bond right away. The girls have done an amazing job and kind of figured out how to win together."
Sophomore guard Franchesca Metz (Marissa's sister) and junior guard Sophia Cullotta have been key contributors this season as well.
"Frannie had a wonderful season as a freshman last year. She's picked up where she left off this season," Ed Stritzel said. "Sophia is a good athlete and excellent three-point shooter."
Fresh Start for players
In addition to their array of talent, the Roadrunners are playing with plenty of motivation – particularly the transfers.
"Everyone including the coaching staff has been through their fair share of adversity the past few years," Marissa Metz said. "We talk all the time about how this is our second chance. Not everyone gets that, but we have all fully embraced this opportunity and everyone at Nazareth welcomed us with open arms."
Annie Stritzel added, "We all had fresh starts this season. I think it worked out so well from the start because each one of us was so excited to play with each other."
The players also hold Ed Stritzel in the higest regard.
"I've been playing for Coach Ed for a couple years now. He really pushes you to become the best player and version of yourself that you never thought you could be," Geary said. "He teaches you not just a lot about basketball but life in general. That's such an important quality to have in a coach. He really does everything he can for the team. Since fifth grade, I knew he was a great coach and that opinion will never change."
For Annie Stritzel, the makeup of the team is perfect.
"I've always wanted to play for my dad," she said. "Now that I'm finally able to do it with great players surrounding me is incredible. The entire coaching staff does such a great job of making sure we are fully prepared for eacg game."
Offensively, Nazareth can score with the best of them via an up-tempo style of play. On defense, the Roadrunners are solid with room for some improvement.
"In the past, my teams have always been tremendous defensively," Ed Stritzel said. "This year is unique because we are such a scoring team. I'm trying to get us a little better [defensively], since we are striving to become a lockdown team on defense."
He cited the Roadrunners' 49-37 win against Marist on Jan. 10 as a sign of growth on the defensive end of the floor. Nazareth held the RedHawks to nine points in the first half.
Even in their rare losses, the Roadrunners have looked formidable. Although Benet edged Nazareth 59-55 on Jan. 13, Ed Stritzel praised his team's performance. Despite fouling out with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Annie Stritzel finished with 29 points. The game was tied with 22 seconds left in the game before Benet pulled out the victory.
In terms of the big picture, Nazareth has a clear vision.
"We want to win state this year and do something for our school that has not been done before," Marissa Metz said. "It's such a cool thing to be a part of this team."
Nazareth hosts Marian Central Catholic on Saturday, Jan. 20. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at the Rooney Center in La Grange Park.