By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(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.)
Phoenixville girls basketball senior forward Maliyah Warren was a little worried before the start of last season.
Coming off her first full season of varsity hoops, which was a disappointing one for the Phantoms, Warren didn’t know much about her young teammates. As the only member of last season’s junior class, she knew if things didn’t go well it would probably be a tough and lonely senior season as well.
Her young teammates showed Warren there was nothing to worry about in a campaign that included a division championship and district win. Now, Warren is a one-member senior class for a Phoenixville team poised to do some big things in 2023-24.
“Doing it by yourself is a little bit scary at first because you want to try and lead everybody,” Warren said. “When you do it with other people, it's a little easier, but trying to take everybody under your wing at once is a little stressful. It’s fun. I have a good time with them and a lot of these girls are my best friends, so it’s really fun doing it with them.”
Phoenixville's Maliyah Warren is the lone senior for the Phantoms this season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
The Phantoms went 13-10 overall last season and won the Pioneer Athletic Conference Frontier Division with an 8-2 record, getting back atop the league’s small-school division for the first time since 2021, which was Warren’s freshman season.
She was a swing player on that 2021 team with a strong senior class. Then came her sophomore campaign when Phoenixville went 8-14 and 7-3 in the division. The Phantoms missed the league playoffs after falling behind Pope John Paul II and Upper Perkiomen in the league pecking order.
Last season looked like more of the same as Phoenixville started 1-2 in Frontier Division play with back-to-back one-point losses to Pope John Paul II and Upper Merion.
All of a sudden, it wasn’t.
“When you have those really close games where you lose by one point to teams you know you should beat, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Warren said. “But instead of using that as discouragement, we used that as motivation to keep going. That’s why I was really proud of the team.”
Phoenixville was 4-5 overall after a 32-31 loss to Upper Merion on Jan. 3. The Phantoms won eight of their next 10 games, including all seven division games as they exacted revenge on PJP and Upper Merion during the stretch.
“I think for me having those high expectations and seeing them achieve those expectations was a great feeling,” third-year coach Tracey Sterling said. “Then also to see them fall a little short sometimes was difficult as well. I take ownership in not putting them in the right spots that they need to be in, but I’m just really, really looking forward to the season.”
Sophomore forward Riley Ford-Bey led Phoenixville in scoring as a freshman last season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Phoenixville ran into perennial contender Spring-Ford in its PAC semifinal match (64-17 loss), but the Phantoms gave themselves a boost of confidence when they upset No. 6 Radnor as the No. 11 seed in the District 1 Class 5A Tournament.
Eventual district runner-up Villa Maria handled Phoenixville 57-31 in the district quarterfinals. Mount St. Joseph ended the Phantoms’ season with a 47-27 loss in the playback bracket — one win shy of the program’s first state playoff berth since 1987.
“It was a great experience, and it’s something we want to build on this year,” Sterling said. “We got that first district win in 15 years for Phoenixville, now our goal is states and to compete for a district championship.”
Phoenixville didn’t have a go-to scorer last season. Some players from the rotation are gone, but most of the team’s production returns.
Warren, a 6-foot forward who has heard from a few small college programs, averaged 6.6 points per game a season ago. Sophomore 6-foot forward Riley Ford-Bey (7.5 ppg) was the team’s leading scorer as a freshman. Junior guard Nevaeh Latimore-Beasley (6.4 ppg), sophomore guard Kayden Baratta (5.1 ppg) and junior guard Ava Gnias are a few other returners from the balanced group.
Junior 5-10 forward Emine Ulcay, who was the team’s second leading scorer (7.7 ppg) in 2021-22 as a freshman, returns after breaking her foot in the preseason a year ago.
“Clearly, we have a lot of height advantage over everyone,” Warren said. “When we are actually focused on the game, I think we can play really well. I think if we keep having the mindset of playing together instead of trying to play the game individually, I think we’re a really great team.”
In a league with Class 6A heavyweights Spring-Ford and Perkiomen Valley, the Phantoms will have an uphill battle to compete for a league title. They’ll be the favorites in the PAC’s small-school division again, and with some turnover among the top 5A programs in District 1, they hope to be right in that mix and break their lengthy state playoff drought as well.
Once fearful how it might go, Warren is excited for her senior season. The young group is ready to make some noise in 2023-24 and beyond.
“Even when I leave, it’s going to be most of the same people since I’m the only senior, so I think this program is really going to grow over the next couple years,” Warren said.