By Marty Farmer
The Nazareth Academy girls basketball team talked openly all season about wanting to win the Class 3A state championship this season. After a second-place showing at state last season (losing to Peoria Richwoods in the final), the Roadrunners' goal seemed reasonable with most of the team's top players back this season.
Unfortunately, the team's dream was halted by perennial state powerhouse Morton in the state semifinals finals on Friday, March 1 in Normal. Morton, which had won three straight 3A state championships between 2015-2017, added a fourth state title by beating Glenbard South 35-21 over the weekend.
The Roadrunners bounced back from their disappointing loss in the semifinals to beat Sacred Heart-Griffin 61-54 in the third-place game on Saturday.
Senior Annie Stritzel, the greatest player in program history, capped off her Nazareth career in style with a game-high 30 points and team-high eight rebounds against Sacred Heart-Griffin. Jovanna Martinucci (14 points), Sophia Cullotta (9 points, 5 rebounds 5 steals) and Kaylen Evans (6 points)also contributed for the victors.
Martinucci and Evans made consecutive 3-pointers early to give the Roadrunners 6-0 lead and never looked back against Cyclones.
Up 31-24 at halftime, Nazareth went on an 11-2 run, extending their lead to 42-26 midway through the third quarter.
The Cyclones rallied, however, pulling within four points at 51-47 with 2:45 left in the fourth quarter on a jumper by Emily Brenneisen.
Stritzel scored eight points on six free throws and a layup in the closing minutes to secure the victory for Nazareth.
In the semifinals against Morton, the Roadrunners started well in the first quarter, establishing an 11-4 lead.
However, the Potters quickly responded by outscoring the Roadrunners 19- 7 in the second quarter and 19-12 in the third. Trailing Morton 42-30 after three quarters, Nazareth essentially traded baskets the rest of the way en route to a 65-51 loss.
Stritzel led Nazareth with 21 points on 8-for-18 shooting from the field, while Evans contributed 19 points. Stritzel, who will attend Harvard in the fall, averaged 22.9 points per game entering the state semifinals.
The typically high-scoring Roadrunners struggled offensively, making just 19 of 52 shots (32 percent) for the game. Morton also owned the glass, outrebounding Nazareth 38-23. Using their size advantage, the Potters also outscored the Roadrunners 34-22 in the paint.
Butler recruit Tenley Dowell (game-highs with 23 points, 8 rebounds) led Morton. Teammates Lindsey Dullard and Katie Krupa also scored in double figures with 17 points apiece.
While replacing a player like Annie Stritzel is impossible, plus the loss of fellow seniors like Martinucci and Cullotta, the Roadrunners should be very competitive next season. Several key players return next season, notably Evans, Francesca Metz and Caroline Workman. That's a excellent core group of players for coach Ed Stritzel to work with next winter.