The Nazareth Academy girls basketball team is on an eight-game winning streak and 19-1 overall. The entertaining, up-tempo team scores about 58 points per game with an average winning margin of 23.5 points. Additionally, the Roadrunners are the fourth-ranked team in Illinois and have beaten several squads of similar distinction.
And yet despite this glittering hoops resume, head coach Ed Stritzel knows there is room for improvement regarding the Class 3A reigning state runner-up.
“We’re a work in progress,” he said. “We’re not even close to our ceiling yet.”
That’s a scary thought for East Suburban Catholic Conference opponents and the rest of the state. After a fourth-quarter collapse against Peoria Richwoods in the 3A state final last year, the Roadrunners appear back on a mission this season. The team’s unfinished business is simple: win its last game of the season.
“I think the reason we are playing so well is because everybody thought we weren’t going to be as good as last year,” senior guard Jovanna Martinucci said. “We’re really motivated to prove everybody wrong and show that we can be one of the top teams again.”
Although Nazareth has the same record as last year through 19 games, the team has won differently this winter. Last season, 6-foot-4 Alyssa Geary (now playing at Providence College) had a state-record 12 blocks in the 3A final last year. She dominated the paint with help from Marissa Metz (now playing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City)
Currently, Nazareth has no player taller than 5-11. And that’s no knock on prized freshman Caroline Workman. Stritzel believes that she’s a future star, however Workman lacks the game experience Geary accrued over four years.
“As a freshman, I don’t have much experience with Nazareth,” said Workman, “but I can tell you that being a part of an elite team and playing with some of the best players in the state for the past few months has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
With a smaller lineup, Stritzel has employed five or six different defenses to present opponents with multiple looks.
“This year we’ve spent a lot more time in the film room. We took a step back to see how we could make this work,” Stritzel said. “Last year we were a half-court, slow-it- down team because of our size. Now we’ve had to do something different.
“We’re really a hybrid team right now,” he added. “That’s why I believe we’re a work in progress. We’re trying to figure out what works for our team right now.”
Senior star Annie Stritzel (Eddie’s daughter) provides stability. The Harvard commit is a difference-maker on both ends of the court and one of the best players in the state.
“She’s playing loose,” Ed Stritzel said. “She’s chosen where she’s going to school already so she doesn’t have that hanging over her. Annie is just going out there and having fun.”
The strategic adjustments on both ends of the floor have served the Roadrunners’ top player and her teammates well.
“We have developed a style of play that fits this team and run with it,” Annie Stritzel said. “The players all have chips on our shoulders after losing in the state championship last year. We are focused and pushing hard to get back to that game because our goal is to win a state championship.”
The Roadrunners are a tough matchup because of their quality depth. In addition to Annie Stritzel, Kaylen Evans, Sophia Cullotta, Francesca Metz, Martinucci and Workman are very skilled players. Seniors Laila Rodriguez, Maggie O’Neill and Ashley Gamboa fortify the bench.
Martinucci and Cullotta are excellent guards with experience, while Evans is a college basketball prospect. Metz is following nicely in the footsteps of her aforementioned older sister, Marissa.
“I believe that our team chemistry and our bonds to one another on and off the court are the reasons for our success,” Metz said. “All the credit goes out to coach Ed and the rest of our staff. They are the ones that have prepared us for every moment of this journey. We have to trust the process, each other and our coaches through these last couple months of the season. We want to keep climbing and improve every part of our game.”
After passing a brutal schedule with flying colors over the first half of the season, Nazareth still has games against highly regarded teams Whitney Young and Benet.
“Our goal for the rest of the season is to continue making a name for ourselves,” Evans said. “We need to prepare well for the playoffs because we want to go downstate again.”
If the Roadrunners are to win state, a higher gear remains in the game plan.
“You don’t want to peak early,” Ed Stritzel said. “We’re happy with the way things are going now. However, the real goal is to be peaking in March not January.”
The Roadrunners’ most recent impressive victory occured against Downers Grove North. Nazareth edged the Trojans 50-44 as Evans scored 22 points for the victors. Annie Stritzel chipped in 13 points and Metz made a couple of huge three-pointers to secure the victory.
-Marty Farmer contributed to this story