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Nazareth bow out to Morton in state-semifinals

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For one quarter, it looked as though Nazareth would avenge their downstate demons by beating one of the premier teams from out of the area.

Unfortunately Morton had other plans.

After an extremely slow start to the game where Morton looked extremely nervous, the Potters eventually settled into the game to take 65-51 win and advance to the 3A championship game.

“It’s incredibly special. The sign of a champion is to get knocked down at times but more importantly get back up,” said Morton head coach Bob Becker. “It’s far better to be back here than watching it on TV.”

After an excellent first quarter which saw the Roadrunners hold Morton to just four points, the Potters started running their offense over the top of the Nazareth defense, getting easy looks at the basket to help settle them into the game.

Morton would score 19 points in consecutive quarters, to catch Nazareth and give themselves a 12 point cushion at the end of three quarters largely thanks to Tenley Dowell’s 23 point, eight rebound performance and despite Nazareth’s hot start to the final frame, they maintained their composure for a 14 point win.

“We started out a little nervous, it’s a big stage and a big atmosphere but I knew that we needed to score little bit,” said Dowell. “They were trapping and everyone was kinda pushed up so I started to look over the top and had some success.”

The loss ends the careers of Jovanna Martinuci, Sophia Cullotta, Laila Rodriguez and Annie Stritzel, who helped change the culture and direction of the Nazareth girls basketball program.

Over the past two seasons, they led Nazareth to a 66-7 record, two trips down state, and an extremely bright future for the program.

“You know when I came in Nazareth was a football power,” said Nazareth coach Eddie Stritzel. “It was a nice time and we were able to build things under the radar. First semester we were just trying to get our feet under us and then we had some success.”

In the cases of Cullota and Rodriguez, they saw the change first-hand as the only players to have played at Nazareth prior to Coach Stritzel’s arrival.

“That’s my favorite Sophia and Laila story. When I came in they didn’t know me and they played basketball just for fun,” said Strizel. “Sophia is actually a really good soccer player and she wasn’t going to play. I talked to her and her parents, we endeared ourselves to her, she took a liking to it and I think if you ask her she’ll tell you she likes basketball more than soccer.”

Despite this being the end of the road for the main portion of the tournament, Nazareth is looking forward to playing one last game together, and in the case of Naareth’s all-time leading scorer Annie Stritzel, one last game with her dad.

“I just told the kids in the locker room I’m almost as excited for tomorrow’s game as today’s. A lot of times teams say they don’t have much to play for but Nazareth owes the IHSA and and ourselves, we’re not going to mail it in tomorrow,” said the elder Stritzel.

“My freshman year was really tough, and when I was going through it I hated every moment of it,” added Annie. “But I wouldn’t change anything that happened because of the people I have by me.”

Though this will be the end of the Stritzel era, this certainly won’t be the end of the road for the Nazareth girls basketball program.

Nazareth are expected to make the jump the 4A next season, but as shown by this years results in-spite of losing Marissa Metz and Alyssa Geary, they are more than primed to continue their success moving forward.

“We lost Geary and Metz and decided to put Annie at the five, and it’s been really fun team,” said Stritzel. “It’s a credit to these kids what they’ve done for Nazareth and they’ve showed so much pride. I’m hoping this isn’t just a three year plug, I’m hoping we can take Nazareth to a perennial state power.”

Nazareth will finish their season in the consolation game against the loser of Glenbard South and Sacred Heart-Griffin, while Morton will face the winner in the 3A title game.

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