By Marty Farmer
The Nazareth Academy girls basketball team won 31 games this season en route to a berth in the Class 3A state finals. Led by head coach Ed Stritzel and star players Annie Stritzel (Ed's daughter), Alyssa Geary and Marissa Metz, the Roadrunners produced the best season in program history.
Unfortunately, Nazareth played its worst quarter of basketball at the most inopportune time in the state championship game.
Entering the fourth quarter with a 41-37 lead against Peoria Richwoods on March 3, Nazareth was outscored 18-5 the rest of the game. Consequently, the Knights defeated the Roadrunners 55-46 to win the 3A championship at Redbird Arena in Normal.
"I think we definitely had a successful year even though we didn't win a state championship," Annie Stritzel said. "This team's chemistry was special and it showed on the court. We are still recovering from losing, but making Naz history so soon is amazing and something we won't forget."
Geary, who transferred from Trinity to Nazareth with Annie Stritzel, echoed her teammate's pride regarding this season.
"I'm so proud of my team and what we accomplished," Geary said. "I had such a great senior experience. We all had so much fun and enjoyed each and every game."
While the additions of Annie Stritzel and Geary propelled the Roadrunners into immediate contention for a state title, Ed Stritzel also made a huge impact on the program, after coaching previously at Trinity.
"I felt that I owed Nazareth because if it wasn't for them, I would have never played for Coach Ed and the coaching staff again after my sophomore year," Geary said. "I wanted to make Nazareth proud all season."
Considering the Roadrunners' stellar play all season, their inability to score in the fourth quarter of the state finals was unexpected and perplexing
"I think we all were waiting for someone else to do something" Annie Strizel said. "We were playing not to lose; we weren't attacking the basket. I still thought we had it with four minutes left, but we let it slip."
Geary added, "I felt that we were timid and scoring was a struggle, which is normally not a problem for us. We needed to step up and we didn't."
After a back-and-forth first half, Nazareth made its move toward the end of the third quarter. The Roadrunners went on a 7-2 run to take a 41-37 lead after three quarters. Geary and Annie Stritzel each scored a basket and Sophia Cullotta's three-pointer off an assist from Jovanna Martinucci capped off the Roadrunners' spurt.
Momentum switched to Peoria Richwoods in the fourth quarter. The Knights took the lead for good at 42-41 on Jaida McCloud's free throw with 3:16 left in the game.
Trailing 54-41 with 19 seconds left, Martinucci scored the Roadrunners first points of the fourth quarter on a layup. Stritzel added a three-pointer on the final possession of the game. Unfortunately for Nazareth, its offense stalled during crunch time.
Geary, a 6-foot-4 senior post player, led Nazareth with 18 points, 12 blocks (state record) and eight rebounds. She has committed to Providence College.
"I am so excited to see what Providence has in store for me," Geary said. "I'm ready to experience a new beginning and become a better and more effective player."
Stritzel, a nationally-ranked player, had 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals. Cullotta chipped in six points and two steals.
"I am so grateful for all the memories and all the wonderful accomplishments we had this season," Metz said. "It's been one incredible journey surrounded by an unbelievably dedicated team and coaching staff."
Kourtney Crane led the Knights with 19 points, while Camryn Taylor, Tianna Johnson and McCloud scored 11 points apiece. McCloud dominated on the boards with 17 rebounds.
In the third-place game, Glenbard South beat Breese Central 35-29.
Roadrunners crush Breese Central
In the semifinals, the Roadrunners rolled to a 58-25 win over Breese Central. Annie Stritzel scored more points (29) than all of the Breeze Central players combined. She accomplished that scoring edge by making 9 of 12 shots and 8 of 9 free throws.
"We came out comfortable and ready against Breese," Annie Stritzel said. "The driving lanes were wide open and we hit our shots. Our switching of screens really affected them as well."
In the Concordia Supersectional, Annie Stritzel had 34 points, 10 rebounds and five steals in a 68-47 win over Bogan on Feb. 26. She also scored a game-high 25 points in a 63-58 victory over Fenwick in a sectional final on Feb. 22.
"She's the type of player that no matter what's going on, she's going to go out there and drop 20-30 points," Metz said after the Fenwick game.
Against Breese Central, Geary provided more than enough support with 15 points, six assists and five blocks. Martinucci (7 points, 4 rebounds) and Metz (5 points, 3 rebounds) also played well for Nazareth.
Leading 14-8 after one quarter, the Roadrunners broke open the game by outscoring the Cougars 17-2 in the second quarter.
Nazareth dominated the action at both ends of the floor, shooting 19-for-31 (61.3 percent) from the floor, while limiting Breese Central to 8-for-35 (22.9 percent) on field goals for the game.
The Cougars committed 18 turnovers and had no assists. Faye Meissner scored 13 points for Breese Central (29-4).
Looking ahead to next season, Nazareth (31-3) returns the majority of its roster. While seniors Geary and Metz will be missed, Annie Stritzel, Martinucci and Cullotta ensure the Roadrunners will be competitive.
The team will develop its depth from the following group of varsity returners: Julia Olander, Frannie Metz, Sarah Theodorou, Laila Rodriguez, Amanda DeCesare, Abbie Moody, Ashley Gamboa, Maggie O'Neil and Sarah Brongiel.
"We are going to miss Marissa and Alyssa," said Annie Stritzel, "but I'm excited and confident in the team we have coming back. We are going to be small and athletic."