The Incarnate Word Academy Red Knights jump into 2020 doing what they always do — play a tough opponent.
The Red Knights (10-1) will play at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Parkway North (6-3) in a girls basketball game. Last February, the Vikings stopped Incarnate Word 65-62. Two yaars ago, Parkway North 73-63. Both were regular-season games.
“We don’t have any easy games,” Incarnate Word coach Dan Rolfes said. “That’s what we want. We have hardened the schedule. That’s for the better for us. They’ve beaten us the past two years. Brett (Katz) does a great job coaching that program. It’s turned into a pretty good rivalry between the two teams.”
The Red Knights, who have won the Class 4 state championship for the last three years, head into the matchup with the Vikings on a roll. Incarnate Word capped 2019 by winning the 45th annual Visitation Tournament. It’s getting to be old hat for the squad. Incarnate Word has won the 16-team tournament 13 times in the last 16 years. The Red Knights have won the big meet six times during the last seven seasons.
Winning the Visitation tourney seems like an annual holiday tradition now for Red Knights.
“I don’t think we take it for granted for sure especially with the talented teams that are in it,” Rolfes said. “Our kids do and I do too, love this tournament. It showcases girls basketball. The semifinals and finals are played in front of a packed house. I
feel like we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really good players who have bought into our system and that’s enabled us to do well in our games.”
The Red Knights are aware of their streak of championships in the tournament.
“They know we’ve had a lot of success at Visitation,” Rolfes said. “What’s neat for our program is we have so many alumni come back over the break and watch the games. Our alumni want us to carry on that winning tradition. Our players obviously want to win and they want to carry on the tradition and make our former players proud of them.
“Over the break, multiple players, some who are still in college and some who have graduated, come to practices and talk to our kids. I think it’s important to our players to know our former players. They paved the way for what we’re doing today.”
The lone loss Incarnate Word has sustained this season came at El Paso, Texas. The Red Knights played four games in the annual McDonald’s Classic Basketball Tournament at Del Valle High School. The Red Knights won the tournament with a 55-50 victory against Hamilton High from Chandler, Arizona.
Incarnate Word fell 57-52 to San Elizario, Texas, a Class 4A school just south of El Paso.
“There’s a lot to be learned from traveling, especially when we have a young team like we do,” Rolfes said. “It’s not just playing the games but learning how to prepare for the games. There’s the shoot-arounds and the pregames and how we behave in hotels and in public. It’s beyond just basketball. There are a lot of learning opportunities when we travel. It’s just us when we go on the road.”
The loss did not terribly upset Rolfes.
“It was a good game. We played everybody one time. Then the top two teams play and we ended up winning that game. That was our second game that day. We ran out of gas a little bit. One thing that was appealing in that tournament was playing four games in three days with such a young team. We got a lot of experience in a short amount of time.”
The Red Knights opened play in the holiday tourney with 74-38 win over Francis Howell and followed it with a 63-43 over Hazelwood Central in the quarterfinals.
“The Central game was a little tighter than the score may seem,” Rolfes said. “Playing day after Christmas is not always easy.”
In the semifinal game, Incarnate Word defeated Parkway North 61-43.
“We have so many new players. Seven of the 12 kids on the team are new to the varsity program,” Rolfes said. “The returning girls definitely remembered losing to North last year. When you’re playing North, they shoot a ton of 3’s and they’re never really out of the game.
“I felt like from the second half on, we did a better job of covering their shooters and getting on them.”
Incarnate Word met Edwardsville for tournament title. Two years, the teams played in the finals with Edwardsville winning.
Not this time. The Red Knights scored a 56-54 victory. Incarnate Word won on a last-second shot.
“It was a back and forth game all game long,” Rolfes said. “We got down by a point with about 1 minute, 30 seconds left. Kate Rolfes hit a 3 to put us by two. They scored with about a minute left. We held the ball. They didn’t come out to pressure us. We had 9.8 seconds left and called out time.
“Ellie Vazzana scored with 4 seconds left. Given the magnitude of the game and the time of the basketball, it was a big one for her. She was so excited. She didn’t have her best tournament leading up to that game and she had a really good game against Edwardsville. She had 19 points for us.”
Several Red Knights were honored by making the all-tournament team. On the first team were senior guard Kate Rolfes and sophomore guard Saniah Tyler. Sophomore forward Jaden Bryant was named to the second team.
Vazzana, a junior forward, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Vazzana also was named the MVP for the McDonald’s Classic.