Hoops star helps Roadrunners race to state title

Hinsdale's Grace Carstensen and the Nazareth Academy girls basketball team had an IHSA 3A state title in their sights, and winning their first five games by an average margin of nearly 38 points projected the unstoppable will of a champion.

Then the Roadrunners met an actual champion in the form of Notre Dame Academy, two-time defending rulers of Wisconsin's hard courts. It didn't go so well.

"After we had that one loss to Notre Dame, I think we all started to realize that we can lose and are not unbeatable," Carstensen said. "We were disappointed at first, obviously. But no one hung their heads or pointed fingers."

The team got to work addressing the weaknesses that had been exposed, then proceeded to win 30 straight games. The last one was the sweetest, a 63-52 victory over Lincoln on March 4 for the program's first state championship.

"I'm still on top of the world," said Carstensen, the lone senior and an Associated Press All State First Team selection. "It was almost surreal. I didn't believe it was happening. It's something that not a lot of people get to experience."

The team was within reach of the top trophy during Carstensen's junior campaign, finishing as state runner-up after a heartbreaking four point-loss to Carmel in the final. As team captain, she was determined that this season would be different.

"We came up with the mantra 'Seal the deal,' and basically the main goal was just to get back to basics, everyone just continually getting better," she said. "I wanted to be able to lead us to what our main goal was and, being the only senior, you just have to encourage the girls and keep everyone positive throughout the whole season."

Along the way Carstensen surpassed the 1,000 points scored mark for her career, and head coach Ed Stritzel celebrated his 400th win. An ascending program when she arrived freshman year as a one-dimensional shooter, her relentless drive to improve and infectious confidence helped elevate the team to rarefied air.

"Before the title game we huddled up and said, 'This is our last ride together, we've got to leave it all on the court.' " Carstensen recounted. "To see that hard work pay off is one of the most rewarding things that I've experienced."

Receiving plaudits of the school community was sweet.

"The Sisters of St. Joseph all just told us how proud they all were of us," she said. "We were glad to give them that first championship in school history."

The DePaul University commit looks forward to next playing for legendary coach Doug Bruno and the learning that awaits.

"I'm just excited to be part of a new team, experience a new place and continue to grow there," she said.

Carstensen fouled out with 30 seconds left and victory in hand, a chance for her watch her teammates for the last time.

"It was definitely bittersweet, being my last year," Carstensen said. "Finishing with those girls was just a really special experience, and I'm beyond blessed to have had them to go through all this with.

"You couldn't really ask for much more."

- story by Ken Knutson, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean