Bouncing back: Incarnate Word Academy strives to excel on, off the court

The Incarnate Word Academy basketball team had just lost its first game of the season and its number-one ranking nationally by USA Today.

The 58-49 loss to Blackman (Tenn.) High School came in a tournament in Kentucky. The 15-1 Red Knights of Incarnate Word returned home Jan. 29 to face a tough 12-2 Miller Career Academy team that features top-flight players, including senior point guard Braennan Farrar. University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and other college coaches were in attendance.

Incarnate Word's response: Put the loss behind and forge ahead. Led by junior Napheesa Collier's 22 points and 16 points apiece from Nakiah Bell and Gwen Adams, the Red Knights won 71-55.

Incarnate Word led throughout the game, building a 40-24 lead by halftime. Miller pulled closer in the second half but couldn't overcome the deficit. Bell, who just became the 11th player at the school to score 1,000 points, hit a trio of three-pointers and Collier showed her athleticism in getting to the ball and the basket. Several fans from Miller Academy expressed delight at seeing Collier's moves even though it hurt their team.
Seeking to get better

Adams, who exerts physical presence under the basket, said "each game and each practice we strive to get better than we were before. It's not just that we want to be number one in the country. That's not our main goal ... nor to win every single game. The goal is to take each day and practice to our advantage and work harder so we can show it in our games."

Practices are intense, with players helping each other get better, Adams said. "If one of our players is down and not getting it right, we pump her up. It takes all of us to win a basketball game."

Adams, who has committed to playing basketball next year at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, said she sees playing basketball and going to school at Incarnate Word as an honor. The players do not get special privileges, she noted. Teachers provide extra help when the players attend games out of town, just as they do for anyone who misses schoolwork.

Adams enjoys the school support for all sports and activities, the diversity of the student body and the administration's willingness to listen to students' input.

Staying humble

Annie Timmermann is one of three students who serve as team managers, assisting the coaches and players with preparation for practices and games, running the clock at practices and sometimes stepping in to help with drills.

Timmermann said the players have stayed humble in spite of their success and attention. The team "brings the school together with a lot of spirit," she noted.

The senior said the team saw the loss in Kentucky as an opportunity to get better. They stayed positive. "It pushed them to work harder. It's motivation."

Last season, Incarnate Word won the Class 4 state championship, capping a 31-0 season. The team has won state championships in 1995, 2006, 2010 and 2011. It finished second in 2012.

Adams said helping underclassmen is important to continue the school's legacy. "We want them to work hard," she said, noting that as a freshman she was helped by Rita Flynn and Bri Puni, post players like herself. "I saw how hard they worked and the determination they had to win a state championship. I knew I wanted to be in their shoes one day and playing as hard as they did."

Timmermann said she sees teammates taking less experienced players aside and explaining things to them when they struggle. "And you can see the difference it makes," she said.

Scholar-athletes

Incarnate Word president Sister Helena Monahan, CCVI, stated that the players are leaders in the school, and the other students look up to them. They "express in their lives values that are important to us: respect, dignity and concern for one another. I'm sure they're proud of their accomplishments, as are we, and they should be. But they don't act superior to the rest of the students."

On the court, she said, they respect the sport and their opponents.

Incarnate Word principal Molly Grumich said the team's success starts with the coach, Dan Rolfes, 359-51 in his career at Incarnate Word. The players are scholar-athletes first, with a collective 3.4 grade-point average, she noted. "We are a school with a basketball team, not a basketball team with a school. They contribute to the school on many levels. And, man, do they work hard. They love the game, and that's part of it."

Other activities

The school, founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1932, has many other activities that involve the students, the principal noted. The student council led an effort recently during Mission Week to raise $6,500 for the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition of St. Louis.

Sister Helena added that the school is the only Catholic secondary school in northwest St. Louis County. It draws students from all over the St. Louis area with a rich diversity -- economically, racially and ethnically. "It's a reflection of the community and the Church and who God wants us to be," she said.

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