When the Illinois High School Association unveiled its brackets for this year's Class 3A girls basketball tournament, one of the most highly-anticipated sectionals was the St. Joseph Sectional. Top-seeded Nazareth Academy, which has been ranked #1 most of the season in 3A, and the second seed Fenwick played a challenging schedule in order to prepare for the postseason.
As expected, Roadrunners and Friars met for the sectional title on Thursday, Feb. 23 in Westchester. In a highly intense game that had several momentum swings, Nazareth prevailed over Fenwick 63-58.
The Roadrunners (29-2) won their first-ever sectional title in girls basketball.
"I've coached all my life, coaching is in my DNA," Nazareth coach Ed Stritzel said. "Nazareth is such a perfect fit for me. It's such a football powerhouse, and the administration wanted to change the basketball program.
"It's happened a lot faster than anybody thought, but we're thrilled and humbled. We have great fan support and we're just excited. These kids put this program on the map, and we're here to stay."
Fenwick (16-17) began the game with good execution on both ends of the floor and led 17-11 after the first quarter.
Nazareth dominated the second quarter, however, outscoring the Friars 20-2 (including the final 18 points of the half) to take a 31-19 halftime lead. Senior forward Alyssa Geary used her height advantage to score 12 points during the run.
"I knew I had to step it up," said Geary, a Providence commit. "Once we got comfortable, I knew we would be fine as long as we knew what to do."
The Roadrunners certainly took note of Geary's clutch play.
"When Alyssa goes off, it helps us all. It's amazing playing with her," Nazareth junior Annie Stritzel said. "We have one of the most talented starting lineups. When one person is struggling, there's another who's stepping up."
Ed Strizel added, "I believe I'm biased, but I feel we have the best post player in Illinois.Alyssa went out in that second quarter and proved it. She's had three triple-doubles this year and is a terrific player."
Geary's size and skills proved problematic for Fenwick.
"She (Geary) is 6-foot-3 and we had a girl who's 5-foot-7 guarding her. I think she's supposed to get some buckets," Fenwick coach Dave Power said. "The problem is if you double her, it opens things up for their three-point shooters, and our goal was to limit their outside shooting. We did a good job in taking away their three-point shots, but we gave up a lot of layups including a bunch of fouls on their made baskets."
The second quarter was ultimately lethal for Fenwick's hopes. In addition to allowing Geary's scoring spree, the Friars had several good open looks that failed to connect.
"We've had slow second quarters much of the year and that second quarter tonight killed us," Power said. "We dug such a hole and expended so much energy rallying. I could see it was going to be a challenge down the stretch."
Nazareth opened up its biggest lead at 39-23 about three minutes into the third quarter. The Roadrunners seemed poised to run away with the game, but Fenwick dug deep.
Sparked by back-to-back 3-point baskets from Shelia Hogan, Fenwick went on a 15-4 run to close the quarter down by only three points at 45-42. The Friars eventually took a pair of leads in the fourth quarter, the second being 49-48 after a Kate Moore free throw with less than six minutes to go in the game.
However, Nazareth countered with a 7-0 run to regain the lead for good at 55-49 as Geary, Annie Stritzel, and Marissa Metz came up with timely baskets. Metz credited the coaching staff for helping the Roadrunners stay calm down the stretch.
"We have an unbelievable staff that's extremely dedicated," Metz said. "They told us that there were going to be moments when Fenwick came close. We just had to be prepared for when they occurred and we remained calm. Everyone came together at the end."
"We knew (Fenwick) was going to give us a good fight," added Annie Stritzel. "We had to keep our composure and for the most part I think we did a good job."
"There's a reason why Annie has close to 30 Division I offers," Ed Stritzel said. "She's a special scorer and player. When things got tough in the fourth quarter, she took over and made some big plays down the stretch."
Nazareth may have also benefited from a questionable non-call late in the game. With the Roadrunners clinging to a 51-49 lead, Fenwick senior Margaret Planek went up for a layup and there appeared to be plenty of contact on her. However, no foul was called, and the resulting steal led to an easy basket by Annie Stritzel. Still, the Friars refused to blame the officiating for the loss.
"Margaret is a really strong girl and I felt she was fouled," Power said. "I thought it was the key play of the game, but I also feel that the referees didn't cost us."
Kate Moore's 3-point basket with 11 seconds left brought Fenwick to within three at 61-58, but Annie Stritzel's two free throws with 9 seconds left accounted for the game's final points.
"It sounds incredible," said junior guard Jovanna Martinucci of winning a sectional. "I came from Queen of Peace and we never won a sectional. To come here and win one in my first year is amazing."
"It's unbelievable," senior forward Marissa Metz said. "To be able to come here and make history - and hopefully bring home a state title - I couldn't be more proud."
Annie Stritzel led all scorers with 25 points and added three rebounds, while Geary finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Martinucci and Metz each added 8 points.
Moore led Fenwick with 20 points. Hogan added 16 points, McKenzie Blaze 9, and Maggie Van Ermen 8.
Power saluted his team for not giving up in the face of the adversity. He felt the schedule mentally prepared the Friars for a postseason run - one that ended a couple of possessions away from a trip to the supersectional. He also believed that the game was worthy of a state finals game, not a sectional.
"It was a great state tournament game," he said. "Unfortunately, many times the true state championship game may be held in the sectional final, and I think tonight might be such a case. Too bad it wasn't played in Normal. You had two very good teams going back-and-forth at each other.
"The schedule prepared them, I knew it would." Power added. "I'll bet at halftime people thought we would pack it in, but we came back with a vengeance in the second half. I'm so proud of our girls. I feel bad that their season's ended. It wasn't because we lost, it was because they gave it everything they had. I don't think we lost the game as much as (Nazareth) won it."
Power lavished final praise for his seniors in leading the Friars back to respectability - particularly Blaze and Moore.
"Their freshman year, our program was really down," Power said. "They've taken us right back to the heights; we were a play or two away from a likely trip to Redbird Arena (state finals site). Kate and McKenzie are not only captains, they're leaders, and they led this team almost to the grand finale."
While Fenwick's season is over, Nazareth continues its quest for a state title Monday at the 3A Concordia University supersectional in River Forest. Bogan will be the opponent, with the Roadrunners pegged as heavy favorites. Nazareth won't take anything for granted.
"It's not over," Geary said. "We've got to continue to make history."