Defending state champion Nazareth overcomes slow start to score big win against Neuqua Valley

Defending Class 3A champion Nazareth's opened the season in dreadful fashion on Thursday night.

The Roadrunners' first shot attempt - a long outside shot - took a big bounce and hit the top standard of the backboard. Nazareth managed just four points in the first five-plus minutes and ended with six points in the first quarter against Neuqua Valley.

Despite a roster full of players committed or receiving interest from colleges, the Roadrunners were stuck in reverse.

But then sophomore forward Stella Sakalas drained a 3-pointer, Amelia Dray followed a 3 and a layup and suddenly the Roadrunners were living up to their nickname and pedigree. The Roadrunners broke open a slow, prodding game by reeling off 21 unanswered points in the second quarter in a 48-24 rout over Neuqua Valley in the Red Devil/Hornet Invitational.

The 6-foot Sakalas is a player to watch this season. With a smooth outside shot and the ability to score inside, Sakalas is fully recovered from her torn labrum injury. Sakalas said she wasn't 100 percent until "about a month ago."

"This was our first game, but we've been practicing hard and we knew Neuqua Valley was going to be experienced since they already played a game," Sakalas said. "Once we started to play our game, that's when everything started to work itself out. We worked well as a team, and it showed we had great chemistry."

The Roadrunners (1-0) play Hinsdale Central at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the next round of the tourney at Hinsdale Central High School.

Sakalas sparked the offense with two 3-pointers and 10 points in the game-turning second quarter, finishing with 13 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.

"Stella tore her labrum in May, so she's been out all summer," Nazareth coach Ed Stritzel said. "She's very determined, played a bit for us last year. She's our best scorer, and already got big-time college offers. She's only going to get better and better."

Senior forward Olivia Austin, a Dartmouth signee, tallied 8 points and 9 rebounds for the Roadrunners. Senior guard Amalia Dray, a Boston College recruit, added 7 points and freshman guard Sophia Towne drained two 3s for 6 points.

The Roadrunners' combination of height, strength and athleticism caused fits for Neuqua Valley all game long. The Wildcats (1-1) struggled finding good looks against Nazareth's wide assortment of zone defenses. The Roadrunners attacked the offensive and defensive glass, in particular for second-chance points and to start fast breaks.

"It was our first game," Stritzel said of the slow start. "We left so many uncontested layups out there, but our defense is always our calling card and we're big and athletic. Our younger kids are getting better, and our freshman Sophia Townes is going to be sensational. Defense is always going to keep us around."

Besides 3-point specialist Grace Carstensen, the Roadrunners returned nearly their entire rotation from last season's 35-1 team, while adding several high-profile newcomers. The Wildcats, the defending DuPage Valley Conference champions, endured a nearly 17-minute span without scoring a field goal. Evansville recruit Kylee Norkus (6 points) and Caitlin Washington (8 points) led Neuqua.

A big bright spot in the blowout for the Wildcats was the play of 6-foot sophomore center Michayla Stone, who pulled down 8 rebounds.

"(Nazareth) is very experienced," Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams said. "We didn't make shots, and you can't turn the over against them. You have to nearly play a perfect game against them. We got some good shots later in the game. We gave them too many second chances and turned the ball over too much. You can't do that against really good team, but we didn't stop playing. We will be all right."

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