By: John Knebels
Photos: Zamani Feelings, Mike Nance & Donna Eckert
WARMINSTER, PA - The freeze frame could have been plastered on a billboard advertising the thrill of athletics.
With the score tied at 46-46 and the final seconds suggesting overtime, Archbishop Wood senior rebounding machine Izzy Larsen outmuscled her Cardinal O’Hara opponent and tapped the ball to herself to corral a physical defensive board and immediately raced up the right side on offense.
To her left, Larsen saw streaking junior teammate Kaitlyn Orihel motion that she was open. After taking three dribbles, Larsen fired a cross-court dart to Orihel. With her defender out of position, Orihel stopped, dribbled once, stepped back, and let fly from beyond the three-point arc.
As the ball dropped through the hoop, the buzzer sounded and the clock showed all zeroes. Having followed through on her shot, Orihel’s arms remained in the air. In less than a second, she was mobbed by adoring teammates while the home crowd roared its approval.
Although just one play on that Thursday night, Feb. 6, it served as a snapshot for the kind of player Orihel has become at Archbishop Wood – dependable, willing to take the key shots, talented, and above all, clutch.
After sifting through numerous college offers, Orihel recently committed to becoming a Villanova Wildcat. The Main Line Augustinian school in Radnor Township will be coached by local legend Denise Dillon, who takes over for retiring hoops lifer Harry Perretta.
“In seventh grade, I had the opportunity to attend an open workout at Villanova with my AAU team,” said Orihel. “I immediately fell in love with the school. Throughout the recruiting process, I kept coming back to Villanova and felt strongly that it was the best fit for me.
“I’ve always been a fan of Coach Denise Dillon, and I’m excited by her vision for the coming years. It’s such a great program, and I’m really looking forward to playing in the Big East with incredible competition there.”
Orihel will be mentored by a coach who understands the nuances of Philadelphia basketball from every angle. A 1992 graduate of Cardinal O’Hara who scored more than 1,000 points as a Villanova guard, Dillon has been enshrined in three Hall of Fames (Villanova, Big 5, Delaware County). After graduating, she assisted Perretta for four years and two more at Drexel prior to taking over as the Dragons’ head coach from 2003-2020, during which she amassed a record of 329-211.
Although it’s always exciting when a local player earns an opportunity to perform at the collegiate level, it’s particularly special – and unique – when the next destination is part of the Big 5.
The only Catholic League players currently/recently on a Big 5 roster are St. Joseph senior-to-be Mary Sheehan (Cardinal O’Hara ’17); Villanova sophomore-to-be Kenzie Gardler (Cardinal O’Hara ’18); La Salle University sophomore-to-be Molly Masciantonio (Archbishop Carroll ’18); La Salle senior-graduate Shalina Miller (Bonner-Prendergast ’15); La Salle junior-to-be Erin Morgan (Archbishop Wood ’18); Temple University junior-to-be Ashley Jones (Neumann-Goretti’17), and Chyna Nixon, a 2017 Neumann-Goretti graduate who played one season at Temple (2018-19) after transferring from the University of Mississippi. After graduating from Bonner-Prendergast in 2015, Alyssa Monaghan enjoyed a standout four-year career at St. Joe’s. Her coach, Cindy Griffin, graduated from Bishop McDevitt in 1987 and has remained St. Joe’s coach for the past 19 years.
“Academically, It’s such a phenomenal school,” said Orihel, who said that distance to home was not a factor in her decision. “I’m currently undecided about my major, so I was really drawn to the fact that Villanova has so many strong programs where I can explore my interests.”
Orihel’s teammates constantly extol the three-time, first-team All-Catholic who was last month was named the PIAA Class 5A Player of the Year after averaging 17.5 points, six rebounds, and four assists despite dealing with a nagging knee injury throughout the season. She also eclipsed the 1,000-point scoring plateau midway through the season.
“I am lucky enough to have gotten to play with Kaitlyn since fourth grade,” said junior Noelle Baxter, who recently announced she will play at Kutztown University. “She has always been a dominant force in basketball. Kait is a super hard worker and is very committed to the game. Kait is one of the best basketball players I have ever seen play. Her speed, ability to finish, her shot, and everything is at a very high level.
“She is a role model for the young kids on the team. Her strength and work ethic is admirable. I’m lucky to get to play with her.”
The two seniors Wood will lose to graduation both said they improved significantly because of Orihel’s influence.
“Having Kait as a teammate is awesome,” said Holy Family University-bound Lindsay Tretter. “From the minute she stepped on the court to her first time freshman year, I knew that she was going to do really well. She is such a tough player and gives it 100% all the time no matter what the circumstances.
“She is so fun to play with and is always so excited for all of us when we are doing well. Kait is a team-first player, which makes her really special. She also is a great leader on and off the court and leads by example while playing, I’m really going to miss being her teammate.”
The aforementioned Larsen will attend Northeastern University after an All-Catholic season during which she led the league in rebounding and starred in Wood’s overtime loss to West Catholic in the PCL championship. There she will join Germantown Academy 2020 alumna Maddie Vizza and 2018 Wood standout guard, Katie May, who was a two-time first team All-Catholic and PIAA state champion.
“Kait is an awesome teammate,” said Larsen. “She holds you accountable even when you don't want it, which I think is very important in a leader of a team. She is fun and so talented; she really leads by example. I'd be lying if I wasn't taken aback occasionally by some of the amazing things she can do when she plays. It was easy playing with Kait; she made the hard work feel worth it.”
Wood senior Izzy Larsen will be joining 2018 Wood alumna, Katie May at Northeastern next year - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
Not surprisingly, Wood’s Mike McDonald said one of the most enriching aspects of coaching is when one of his players solidifies her future venue.
“I feel happy, first and foremost,” said McDonald. “I’m excited for them. I know first-hand how hard they work, and it’s rewarding as a coach to see that hard work rewarded by college coaches. I am proud of my kids and grateful to the college coaches.”
McDonald explained some of the nuances that most bystanders don’t consider.
“Along with excitement, I would say there is relief that any stress from the process is gone,” he said. “I think the stress varies from kid to kid. Some just want to play in college and need an offer, and some have a ton of offers and have to figure out where will be best. The majority of the kids handle it extremely well. I think playing is the escape that allows them to focus only on playing the game.
“There is a bittersweet feeling towards the college coaches. I am fortunate to get to know some of them through the process, and I wish they could all get my players. It is their livelihood and most that I speak to are great people. Unfortunately, a kid can only choose one. It is a tremendous process for my players; great for their growth as people.”
Ultimately, however, an awareness of the big picture is most important.
“I have been lucky that the majority of our kids make choices that fit and don’t chase delusion or 15 minutes of social media fame,” said McDonald. “Noelle Baxter had Division I opportunities but knew she loved Kutztown from day one and committed as a junior. That is what I want for all my kids – go to a place you are wanted and you want to go. Next year as a freshman, nobody will care what level you are.
“In five years, 99.9% of them will be looking for a job that is not playing basketball. That is what they should be thinking about when choosing a college – the experience during college and the opportunity leaving it. Again – I am lucky that most of my kids and their parents understand this. Most kids stay the same after they commit. I always hope that holds true.”
(John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.)