Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
(Ed. Note: This story is the latest in CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2021-22 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed can be found here.)
Inevitably, the hunter becomes the hunted.
Such is the case this winter for this Archbishop Wood's girls' basketball team, which spent the last three years chasing titles but now enters a season having won the PCL and PIAA Class 4A titles.
The Vikings know they're now being hunted, but that doesn't mean they've given up the chase either.
Delaware commit Bri Bowen (above) is one of the leaders on a loaded Archbishop Wood squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
"I'm really excited for it, obviously we still have things to work on but it's only the beginning for us," senior Bri Bowen said. "I really think we're going to come together really well this year and I'm excited to see what that looks like."
Wood's veterans have been through it all - two overtime losses in PCL title games, a state playoff loss and having another potential state run taken from them by the pandemic in 2020 - so if anyone is qualified to steel a team for what's coming, it would be them.
"It's on us, we're teaching the rest of them what we went through last year and how it translates to this year," senior Ryanne Allen said. "We're trying to form the culture this team will provide especially after losing some key players. We're getting them where they need to be so when the season starts, we'll be in good shape."
Most teams coming off a championship run have at least a few pieces to replace and Wood is no different. The Vikings graduated Kaitlyn Orihel (Villanova) — a two-time state player of the year and four time All-PCL selection — the program's all-time leading scorer, a fiery leader and facilitator in Noelle Baxter (Kutztown) and floor-spacing forward Dana Kiefer (Bryant), who all contributed greatly to last year's title run.
However, this is also a Vikings squad that builds depth during the season and last year's crop of sophomores look poised for bigger things as juniors. Nobody is expecting one of them to fill the void the seniors left but as a collective, they bring plenty to the table.
Then there's the seniors.
In his time as Wood's head coach, Mike McDonald has never had a player named the Catholic League's MVP. There's a long list of contenders for it, but Allen is certainly in the top tier of that list coming off first team All-PCL and All-state selections and having committed to Vanderbilt in late September.
"I think you're already seen a more confident and a more driven Ryanne Allen," McDonald said. "She realizes it’s going to be her team and she's taken on that role of being the best player in the state and best player in the league. The strides she's taken, she no longer relies on shooting the ball from the outside and she's been vocal, even at workouts, she's keeping the standard that we expect to win and we expect to do things the right way at a championship level.
"She has an edge, what almost looks like a chip on her shoulder and for someone who's gotten a lot of recognition, she's playing like she still has something to prove."
Allen is out to prove she's more than just a great shooter, and the 6-foot-1 wing has put in a lot of work since last March to round out her game. She's also ready to face the brunt of opposing defensive attention.
"After last season, I was aware of that coming so I started working on being able to create my own shot but also looking for others being able to step up to also score the ball," Allen said. "As long as we all work together, even if I'm being pressured like Kaitlyn was, I know I have other people around me to step up."
Vanderbilt commit Ryanne Allen (above) is one of the preseason favorites for Catholic League MVP. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Anyone that's watched the Vikings the last three years knows the value Bri Bowen means to them. With Orihel now playing in college, Bowen knows she'll be looked at to increase her consistency as a scorer
What the Delaware recruit will bring plenty of is defense and toughness. In her time at Wood, Bowen has guarded everyone from Diamond Johnson to Maggie Doogan and anyone in between and is looking forward to showing what she can do as an all-around player.
"Everyone knows when they get on the court that they can look for themselves too in our offense," Bowen said.
Bowen might be underrated outside of the most in-the-know circles, but McDonald has no doubt the senior will be a very known quantity by the end of the season.
"She's always been capable of that, but now she's got the ball in her hands a lot more and it allows her to have that freedom to attack because she's a good decision maker and a good finisher," McDonald said. "She's just really underrated, we always talk about her toughness and her rebounding but her ability to score the ball and her athleticism is something that's not mentioned enough."
Rounding out the senior group is Shannon Morgan. The guard, who missed part of the summer with an injury, is looking to add to her family's lineage of success at Wood.
Older sister Erin was part of a PCL and two state titles and brother Ryan helped the Vikings win the 2018 PCL soccer title and make two state semifinal appearances. Shannon, the only other player aside from Orihel and Allen to score in last year's state final,
"This team is going to have a totally different dynamic that last year's," Morgan said. "The juniors are ready to step up and take on the roles Kaitlyn, Dana and Noelle had and we've put in a lot of time at open gyms working on that. I think when you pass the ball, shots are more likely to go in and the more confident players you have on the court, the easier it becomes to win a game."
The trio is singularly focused on defending their titles and know they don't have to do it on their own.
"It's always super-competitive, even in the open gyms, everyone is fighting for spots," Allen said. "That's the point of the offseason, you're trying to get better as a team but also individually. We're trying to use it to come together before the season starts so we can jump right into it."
Wood's supporting cast gives McDonald plenty of options. Tess Fleming, Kara Meredith, Allie Fleming, Delaney Finnegan, Lauren Tretter, Shaina Klos and Campbell McCloskey all return after serving as reserves or JV swing players last year.
Deja Evans (above) joins the Wood roster after transferring in from Plymouth Whitemarsh. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Allie Fleming, a lefty sharpshooter, has been playing well during fall competition while Meredith and Finnegan both give the Vikings shooting and size as wing defenders. Deja Evans joins the team after two years at Plymouth Whitemarsh and the junior forward has fit right in as a true post presence that can also push the ball. McDonald also noted sophomores Alexa Windish and Ava Renninger and freshman Reynah Ratliff as players who will fight for roles.
"We have 17 kids that are trying out and I think they can all help out a varsity team," McDonald said. "That's what we're talking about as coaches that it could really be a game-by-game thing. Matchup-wise, I'm big on who is playing who on the other team and especially in league games, who matches up to start and when you bring kids off the bench, how is that going to change?"
After last year's schedule limited Wood to playing just PCL opposition until the postseason, it's back to normal this year and the team has jumped right back in. The PCL is going back to its old format of one game against each league opponent, doing away with the Red and Blue divisions of the last two years, meaning every contest matters that much more.
Outside the PCL, the Vikings' non-league slate is loaded. They begin the season in the She Got Game Classic in Maryland against Paul VI (Va.) and New Hope Academy (Md.), come home to face Long Island Lutheran (N.Y.) as part of the Diane Mosco Foundation Shootout, cross the river to face Staten Island Academy in the NJ Super Games and finish the pre-PCL slate at the Boo Williams Christmas Classic in Hampton, Va. There is one more out of state trip on Jan. 17, when Wood travels to Bishop McNamara (Md.) to take part in the program's DREAMS MLK Monday Classic.
Wood will also participate in a few local showcases, including the Blue Star Invitational on Jan. 9, the Hoops For Hope event at USciences against Penn Charter on Jan. 23 and will face Notre Dame Academy in the Play-By-Play Classic event at Jefferson on Jan. 30.
"It's huge, especially for our juniors, to have those games before our Catholic League run because I think it's going to be rough in parts but we're definitely going to have to play really, really well to be in some of those games," McDonald said. "It teaches a sense of urgency and how you have to rotate defensively. That's why we play those games and with this team, more than ever, we're going to need it because we have kids who are good but still need that kind of experience."
The non-league games and team trips are always nice, but the Vikings' first focus in on the PCL. They got their long-elusive title last year, but this group of seniors has yet to win at the Palestra with a pair of agonizing overtime losses in 2019 and 2020 a constant spectre.
"I wish we could have been there last year, I'm still so grateful we won but it's different when you win and it's there," Morgan said.
The Vikings stayed plenty busy this summer, but they've been eagerly counting down the days until official practice starts and after that, the games that count.
Wood expects to get everybody else's best shot this winter. It's a condition that comes with winning and the Vikings can accept that, but they won't accept just rolling over and letting someone else take what they earned last year.
"I love how hard everyone works, it's not a given and it's not going to be handed to them but they know that," Bowen said. "The championships, they're not going to be given, we're going to have to fight for them the entire season.
"We're also not leaving without one."