By Marty Farmer
With all due respect to the time-honored tradition of the NCAA men's basketball tournament affectionately known as "March Madness," Illinois high school girls basketball teams can't wait that long to get it on the hardwood.
A "February Frenzy" of IHSA games begins this week with single-elimination tournaments at all four class-levels. And while plenty of drama and excitement are a given, the best teams don't always win championships which adds further intrigue.
The Nazareth Academy, Riverside-Brookfield, Fenwick, Lyons Township and Trinity teams all have postseason aspirations. Despite difficult draws, all these squads have enough talent to make a run in the postseason. Here's a scouting report on each team.
With a school-record 31 wins and a 3A state runner-up finish last season, the Roadrunners' goal this year is reaching their ultimate goal of winning a state championship.
Fresh off a superb regular season despite facing excellent competition, Nazareth (26-3) appears on course for another extended stay in the playoffs. Harvard-bound Annie Stritzel, one of the best all-around and clutch players in Illinois, leads the team.
"Our thoughts about the playoffs haven't changed," Stritzel said. "We believe we are a state-title contending team and we are going to take it game by game. We know it's not going to be easy, but we are going to put everything in to getting back to where we were last year. Only this time, we want to finish the season with a win."
Stritzel, along with teammates Kaylen Evans and Jovanna Martinucci earned all-conference honors in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. Francesca Metz, Sophia Cullotta and Caroline Workman lead a solid supporting cast of players.
In addition to their tremendous roster, the Roadrunners' head coach Ed Stritzel (Annie's dad) is good as it gets. Factoring in the considerable losses of Alyssa Geary and Marissa Metz to graduation last year, the veteran coach has successful tweaked the team's style of play to better suit this year's group. With a smaller lineup, Stritzel has employed five or six different defenses to present opponents with multiple looks. Offensively, the team plays up-tempo basketball.
"I think our team made a lot of strides this season," Evans said. "We've shown a lot of people who doubted us that we are still a really good team despite our lack of height."
Nazareth is the top-seeded team in the Fenwick Sectional. A sectional finals showdown against the host Friars is probable.
In recent seasons, two narratives have been common regarding the Bulldogs. The team typically racks up wins in bunches and fares well in Metro Suburban Conference play during the regular season; however, the postseason is much more problematic due to tough draws.
The first pattern held true this winter as RBHS went 19-10, highlighted by a 10-2 record and league title in the Metro Suburban Conference.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs landed in the same stacked 4A sectional this season as state powers Montini, Whitney Young, Benet Academy, St. Ignatius and Simeon.
The players are not looking too far ahead.
"My personal goal is just to win the game in front of me no matter how far we go," sophomore forward Brenna Loftus said. "We played as hard as we could this season, and the playoffs will be a good challenge for us."
The Bulldogs' formula for success features an aggressive style of play at both ends of the floor. Loftus and Sarah JnoBaptiste are the team's top stat-sheet stuffers (particularly on offense), but Mary Maloney, Leah Rettke, Georgiana Gomorczyk and Angelina Ocampo have been productive players as well.
"I think we played very well as a team in the regular season and we will continue to do so in the playoffs," JnoBaptiste said. "My goal for the playoffs is to get as far as we can and to play hard."
RBHS, the 13th seed in the Hinsdale South Sectional, routed Curie 58-12 in the quarterfinals of the Argo Regional on Monday, Feb. 11. The Bulldogs take on St. Ignatius next in the regional semifinals on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
After hovering around the .500 mark for the past few seasons, the Friars won 20 games this winter. Fenwick notched notable victories over Bogan, Marian Catholic, Peoria and Stevenson. The Friars also lost close games against Loyola, Montini, Fremd, Benet and New Trier -- all state title contenders.
Fenwick coach Dave Power is confident that the rigorous schedule will benefit the Friars in the 3A tournament.
"We feel we're playing very good basketball at the right time of year," Power said. "This is why we play an unbelievably challenging schedule. We put the team through a lot of battles to try to get ready for the war. We've seen it all and feel we're able to adjust."
Maggie Van Ermen, Lauren Hall, Sheila Hogan, Lily Riordan and Katie Schneider have been solid contributors, while freshmen Elise Heneghan and Audrey Hinrichs have infused the Friars with exciting, young talent.
Although senior guard Gianna Ortiz did miss several games with a severe ankle sprain late in the season, the Friars' floor general is should be good to go for the state tourney.
"It's so much fun playing on this team because we all work so well together," Hall said. "We played many tough games during the regular season and grew a huge amount from each one. We're excited for the upcoming games."
Ortiz, and Van Ermen were named to the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference Red all-conference team.
"We're more balanced this year, which makes it harder for teams to stop us," Power said. "The players and staff have worked hard to prepare for the second season."
Winners in four of five games to close the regular season, the Lions (13-13) enter the 4A state playoffs with confidence and momentum under first-year coach Meghan Hutchens.
"We are starting to put a few key parts of our game together," Hutchens said. "We are learning from our mistakes and moving forward through the season. We can hopefully continue playing good basketball into the postseason."
The Lions' top player is Lily Courier. She finished the regular season with double-doubles of 16 points and 15 rebounds against Oak Park and River Forest and 15 points and 11 boards against Hinsdale Central. Kelly Carlson, Lindsey Hahn and Elli Kosanovich are other notable contributors.
"We had spurts of great moments on offense," Hutchens said after the Lions' 53-52 win against OPRF. "Oak Park is a respectable team, but we shouldn't have let them back into the game in the fourth quarter."
LTHS is the No. 12 seed in the Hinsdale South Sectional.
With a new head coach in Kim Coleman and largely young and inexperienced team, this season figured to be transitional one for the Blazers. To complicate matters, Trinity suffered a major blow before the start when promising junior guard Dayjah Chimelewski tore her ACL and missed the season.
Her loss redirected responsibility on the shoulders of junior guard Zee Stafford and sophomore forward Makiyah Williams. Williams produced several outstanding game performances that cemented her status as one of the state's top recruits in the Class of 2021. She's the type of impact player that can power Trinity to some upset wins in the tourney.
Sophomores Savannah Childress and Maddie Miller and juniors Claire Hanley and Lauren Saleh also showed signs of progress. With only two seniors on the roster, coupled with the expected return of Chimelewski next season, the Blazers' future appears bright.
Trinity (12-16) opens regional play against Niles West at Loyola Academy.
-Melvin Tate contributed to this story.