Incarnate Word Academy basks in glow of undefeated basketball season
By: Warren Mayes
The dream season began on a sad note but it ended on a perfect note for the Incarnate Word Academy Red Knights.
Incarnate Word capped a 31-0 season with a commanding 63-22 victory over the Webb City Cardinals to win the Class 4 championship game at Mizzou Arena.
It was the Red Knights’ fifth state championship and their third title in four years under coach Dan Rolfes, who has led the program for the past 13 years. It is their first title in Class 4, which Incarnate Word dropped down to this year.
Incarnate Word won every game except one by double digits. The two closest games they had were against St. Joseph’s Academy and those wins were by 12 and 15 points.
The only close game all season for Incarnate Word came in the season opener in the Tennessee Turkey Jam Classic at Murphysboro, Tenn., against the Hoover (Ala.) Buccaneers in which the Red Knights won 59-56. Hoover went on to win the large school state championship in Alabama.
“To be honest, that was a really tough game for all of us,” Rolfes said. “Right before we were getting ready for that game and getting on the bus, I got a phone call that my father (Mike) passed away from a heart attack. I got off the bus. I didn’t see that game.
“The girls were all flustered. My dad went to all the games. It was a heck of a first game. (Junior) McKenna Treece got hurt in warmups so they had to change the lineup. If everything could have done wrong, it would have been that day but they didn’t let it. That shows you type of kids we have at Incarnate.”
After that heartache and close scare, Incarnate Word never looked back.
The Red Knights and Webb City had met before in the postseason. In 2011, Incarnate Word defeated the Cardinals 60-56 in a Class 5 semifinal game.
This time the score was not close. Webb City (25-6) could not stop Incarnate Word sophomore Napheesa Collier. The center, who moved from Jefferson City to St. Louis last summer, led the Red Knights with a game-high 24 points and 14 rebounds. Collier connected on nine of 10 shots from the field to spark the Red Knights. She also hit all six of her attempts from the free-throw line.
During the season, Collier topped the 1,000 point milestone.
Senior Nia Roth scored 14 points. Other scorers for the Red Knights were Carly Frala with nine, Nakiah Bell with eight, and Gwen Adams with seven. Bell also contributed nine assists.
The Red Knights shot 50 percent from the floor and 78 percent from the free throw line. Incarnate Word outrebounded Webb City 21-7.
“We were pretty good,” Rolfes said. “We got our offense going right away. We scored on our first two possessions so any nerves we had were gone after that. We just played our game.”
In the semifinal game, Incarnate blasted Dexter 66-25. Collier again led the way. She poured in 28 points and pulled down 16 boards.
So, it was an overwhelming performance in Columbia for the Red Knights.
“I think we won both games in a dominating fashion,” Rolfes said. “That’s a tribute to the balance we have on this team. We’re hard to defend against. There’s only so much you can do. We’ve got guards who can penetrate and shoot and we have Collier inside. The kids did a good job defensively, too.”
It was the first undefeated season in school history. While Rolfes said that never is a goal for his program, it is nice to have one.
“Looking at it now, it’s obviously, extremely special,” Rolfes said. “Going into the year, that wasn’t one of our goals. Our goal was to win the state. We tried to put a schedule together that was going to prepare us for the state tournament. We feel like if we play tough teams during the regular season, once our kids get to state, they won’t be as nervous or worried about someone.”
His squad indeed was special. They all got along on and off the court.
“This group was an interesting group,” Rolfes said. “They had so much fun playing together. I was just always surprised by how they could have fun right before the game and then just turn it on. Every time, we asked them to step up to the plate and challenged them, they came through.”
The Red Knights will lose some valuable seniors. Nia Roth will play at Quincy University. Carly Frala will attend Missouri State. Also graduating will be guard Sam Cavlovich.
“We do lose some talented seniors,” Rolfes said. “We’ll miss them, too. Nia was our best 3-point shooter. She’ll play at Quincy and do well there. Carly Frala won’t be playing basketball but she could if she wanted to.”
Three starters will be back along with Treese, who was the first player off the bench for Incarnate Word.
“We will be in pretty good shape,” Rolfes said. “McKenna Treece, who missed the first six games with ankle injury, played as much as the starters and she’s going to be a Division I player. She was going to start. Since we were winning, we kept the same lineup until we lost and then we’d get her back in there as a starter. But we didn’t lose. She was first one off the bench. She’s a 6-foot-3 post player who’s really good.
“We’ll be pretty good again. I think the future looks great for Incarnate Word basketball.”