Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of 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 2023-24 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
The number four has permeated its way all through Archbishop Wood’s program.
From the four letters spelling W-O-O-D on the front of the Vikings’ uniforms, to the four elected co-captains all the way to the tiny Roman numeral IV tattoo on Ava Renninger’s right arm, four is everywhere. At the forefront of all the fours is the team’s ultimate objective, one it hopes to complete just before the calendar turns over to the fourth month of 2024.
It’s a new-look Wood team, but all eyes are on a fourth-straight PIAA title, something the program has never done before.
“We’re excited to see how far we go this year,” senior Alexa Windish said. “With such a new team and such a young team, it’ll be exciting to see what we can do.”
Ava Renninger got a tattoo of the Roman numeral IV on her right arm during the offseason. Archbishop Ryan is looking to four-peat as PIAA champion this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Last year’s team had seven seniors, the largest class of Mike McDonald’s tenure, and plenty of experience. This season, there’s a very different dynamic to the Wood roster, although it’s certainly not lowering any expectations.
Renninger, a Fairleigh Dickinson recruit, Windish (Kutztown) and Lauren Greer make up this year’s senior class and three quarters of the captain’s council. Emily Knouse, a junior with roughly a dozen Division I offers, rounds out the four co-captains and the players with significant returning varsity experience.
Greer, who just helped Wood win a third straight Philadelphia Catholic League title in soccer, and Windish project to move into the starting lineup and take on greatly expanded roles.
“It starts with the team connection and the team energy,” Greer said. “As long as you’re a really close team, you communicate and share the ball, then you’re going to get far.”
Wood looked to have received a major boost when Colleen Besachio transferred in this summer following a standout freshman year at Upper Dublin. The 5-foot-11 forward with a formidable outside game was having a prolific fall, but an injury has left her status in question for the upcoming season.
Besachio’s absence would leave a team already on the smaller side with even less height, something that tends to stand out when trying to replace someone like Deja Evans. The 6-2 post, now a freshman at Albany, was a rebounding machine, and in her two seasons at Wood she had nine double-doubles in 10 career PIAA games.
Knouse had a great summer on the GUAA circuit with her Comets 15U team and carried it into the fall. The sharpshooter has also shown some excellent passing in fall events, and she’s embracing that as one of the taller players she’ll be counted on as a leading rebounder.
“Coach Mike said in one of our huddles, ‘We don’t have Deja to get us an automatic 15 anymore, so it’s going to take that much more effort going after the ball, boxing out and being aggressive,’” Knouse said. “Those extra possessions Deja would get us, now everyone needs to get in and scramble for.”
Sophomores Emma Yogis and Sophia Topakas will factor into the guard rotation. Topakas, also a starting midfielder on the soccer team, can get to the rim while Yogis can get into a quick rhythm from the perimeter.
Archbishop Wood senior ALexa Windish is one of four captains and has committed to Kutztown. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Beyond them, the Vikings are expecting at least a few of their seven incoming freshmen to see some varsity minutes. Makayla Finnegan is already showing similarities to her older sister Delaney as a high-energy, fiery competitor on the defensive end, and it won’t surprise anyone in the program if she’s a quick contributor.
“She’ll definitely bring it on defense every play and she’s aggressive on offense,” Renninger said. “As a freshman, she’s not scared to bring it to the hoop or get after some people, so I think she’s going to be a nice role player for us.”
When Renninger’s family moved to the area and she transferred to Wood prior to her sophomore year, one thing that stuck with her was how quickly the rest of the team brought her in. It’s a point of emphasis for the now-senior captain this year, and while the Vikings have been diligent in their open gyms, team workouts and fall events, they’ve also taken nights off to go support their teammates playing fall sports.
“We’ve really worked on team bonding in the offseason and our fall tournaments,” Renninger said. “Especially with the freshmen, there are seven of them, we want them to be comfortable with us just so we have that off-the-court chemistry because it's vital to the on-court chemistry.”
Wood doesn’t have a supernova scorer like Kaitlyn Orihel or Ryanne Allen, but the same was true for last year’s team. What the Vikings do have is a good variety of players who can get points in their own way.
Knouse is an outstanding shooter, Windish is extremely quick getting to the rim, Greer has a good read moving through Wood’s sets and Renninger is strong getting to the rim or knocking down a midrange shot with her perimeter game also getting better. The underclassmen will find their strengths as they settle into their roles, and like most years, if the team executes its plays, the baskets will come.
“Everyone on our team is talented, scoring-wise,” Windish said. “Every one of us can score — if we play as a team, that’s what makes us hard to guard.”
It’s a shared sentiment among the returning veterans.
“I love that we’re already so comfortable with each other and we’re not just looking for one person to score for us.” Knouse said. “It’s so much more fun when it is so evenly spread out.”
Wood’s schedule is again loaded — the Vikings won’t even play in their home gym until Jan. 9 against Nazareth Academy and start the season with trips to Washington, D.C., for the She Got Game Classic and Coral Springs, Florida, for the Kreul Classic.
Locally, they have confirmed games with Perk Valley and Westtown, and there’s always the annual grind of the PCL. Wood was the runner-up last year, falling to Lansdale Catholic in a classic at The Palestra, and this group knows how difficult it will be just to try and get back there in late February.
“We go through all these games and our preseason to get us ready for the PCL,” Knouse said. “All the teams know each other in the PCL — we know what they’re running and they know what we’re running, so what we hope takes us to the next level is playing all these tough, high-level teams.”
The last girls basketball team in Pennsylvania to win four straight state titles was Allentown Central Catholic from 2001-04. It’s not a common feat, and the Vikings aren’t shying away from making it their goal.
“We’ve all experienced at least two, and it’s always an amazing feeling,” Knouse said. “For our seniors to go out winning four in a row would just be incredible.”