Before Ed Stritzel became head coach, the Nazareth Academy girls basketball program had never won a sectional or supersectional.
His mission was to make the Roadrunners relevant in the sport, and winning both the sectional and supersectional in consecutive seasons certainly has done the trick.
Nazareth defeated Lindblom 60-23 Monday, Feb. 25 at the IHSA Class 3A Concordia University Supersectional in River Forest to advance downstate for the second year in a row.
"We hope we've put Nazareth on the map as a powerhouse. That was a goal of mine and we want to keep it there," Stritzel said. "We've got a great group of girls. As great as we were last year, last June people said because we wouldn't have the height, we wouldn't be as good this year. The girls took it personally. They want to be great and it's a fun group to coach."
Although Nazareth (31-3) entered the supersectional as heavy favorites, Lindblom got off to a fast start as Marshay Kellum and Jumee Henderson (team-high 8 points) connected on consecutive 3-pointers to give the Eagles a 6-0 lead just 78 seconds into the game. However, the Roadrunners scored the next 10 points and gradually took control.
A primary reason for the turnaround was the continued stellar play of guard Annie Stritzel. A Harvard recruit and Ed's daughter, the senior scored 13 of her game-high 34 points in the opening quarter to give Nazareth a 17-11 lead.
In the second quarter, Stritzel continued her hot hand by pouring in 11 more points as the Roadrunners increased their lead to 30-17 at halftime. She made 15-of-20 shots (75%) from the field and had five rebounds.
"Annie is going to go down as one of the all-time winners," Ed Stritzel said. "She's been downstate three times now in her career. She just wins games and I wouldn't trade her for anybody. I think we've got the best all-around player in Illinois on our team."
And like most great players, Annie Stritzel makes her teammates better.
"Playing with Annie is really great," Nazareth senior guard Jovanna Martinucci said. "Once you get her the ball in the first half, she opens up so much for everyone else and it's really exciting."
Any designs Lindblom (21-8) had of a comeback were shredded in the third quarter as the Roadrunners held the Eagles to two made free throws. In fact, Lindblom made only one basket in the second half, an Ann-Marie Lawrence jumper with 7:27 left in the fourth quarter. The Nazareth defense held Lindblom to 7-for-33 shooting overall (21%) and forced 18 turnovers, including 11 steals.
Nazareth shot 56 percent (23-for-41) from the floor. Martinucci had a solid all-around game with nine points, two rebounds, two assists and three steals.
"Jo is not only smart but she's a great athlete as well," Ed Stritzel said. "It's hard to press us because she's so quick and fast. She's a great player."
Senior Sophia Cullotta (5 points, 6 rebounds), junior Kaylen Evans (5 points) and junior Francesca Metz (3 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals) also played well for the victors.
Annie Stritzel received a state third-place medal her freshman year while at Trinity on a team coached by Ed. She transferred to Nazareth before her junior season when Ed became the Roadrunners head coach, and earned a state runner-up medal. Heading into this weekend, Annie has just one thing in mind which is winning the program's first state title.
"We kept thinking this whole season about how we gave it away at the end," Annie Stritzel said of last year's state finals loss. "Especially us seniors, we never want to have that feeling again, so we're going to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Martinucci feels the experience the Roadrunners gained last season will help this year.
"We're going to be excited, but we're also going to be calm and relaxed because we'll have an understanding of what it's like to be downstate," she said. "We really want to win state. It would be huge to bring a title to Naz."
Nazareth faces Morton (IL) in a 3A semifinal Friday morning at 11 at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena. The other semifinal will pit Glenbard South against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. The third-place game is set for Saturday at 11 a.m., with the title game at 12:45 p.m.