By John Knebels
Videos: John Knebels
Photos: Donna Eckert
HERSHEY, PA –Villa Maria Academy’s fans tried their best to mess with Archbishop Wood’s psyche. It was an exercise of utter futility.
The school from Erie pounded the floor when the Lady Vikings attempted free throws. They chastised Wood’s coaching staff for whatever defensive strategy they deployed. They mocked Wood’s players – one in particular – with rude commentary.
The Lady Vikings’ response? Hit 11 of 14 free throws. Ensnare 19 rebounds. Block five shots. Cause 15 – FIFTEEN – turnovers. And totally ignore the mean-spirited name-calling and catty chants.
That’s what champions do.
With senior Kaitlyn Orihel scoring 25 points and stealing four passes, junior Ryanne Allen tallying 17 points, and senior assist machine Noelle Baxter conducting a clinic in pinpoint accuracy with seven dimes while adding a team-high four boards, the Lady Vikings upended previously undefeated Villa Maria, 44-34, in the PIAA Class 4A state championship March 27 at the Giant Center. Archbishop Wood has now captured an amazing six state crowns and participated in nine finals.
“I’m grateful,” said Wood coach Mike McDonald, who also coached the 2015-2016 and 2016-17 squads to state titles. “Just the way this year has gone – the sacrifice from the players, the coaches, the families, our administration, the PIAA. To go out on top made all of that sacrifice worth it.
“It’s a special group, starting with a special group of seniors who have worked so hard, and to have it cut short last year when we had a great chance to get here, and then a little over a year, the amount they have had to go through to get to this point. It’s very rewarding to be their coach and to be around them every day. I’m very lucky.”
In the opening two minutes of the first quarter, the Lady Vikings’ torrid defense forced two jump balls and a frantic Villa timeout. The District 10 champion Victors (20-1 overall record) scored the first basket, but an Allen three gave Wood (17-2) a 3-2 lead. Though tied on four occasions, the Lady Vikings would never trail again.
After a Villa bucket tied the game at 18-18 early in the third quarter, Orihel and Baxter took over. Teammates on various teams since fourth grade, the duet connected for three baskets and one ferocious board by Baxter. Aided by a pair of three-point plays, Orihel (9 of 10 from the line) ended up scoring all of Wood’s 10 third-quarter points, and a 10-3 run gave the Lady Vikings a 28-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“I know that Kaitlyn is going to cut really hard and she’s going to catch the ball,” said Baxter. “That comes a lot with just trusting my teammates. I know my job, and I’m okay with my job.”
Orihel smiled wide when asked to account for the pair’s prescience.
“That’s been our trademark play since the beginning,” said Orihel. “Backdoor cut, and she always gets me. To be able to do that in our last game together is awesome.”
Unfortunately for the now-bewildered Victors, the two were nowhere near done. Baxter assisted on Wood’s first three baskets of a dominant fourth quarter that saw Orihel score 10 points and Allen add six.
As they did when defeating Cardinal O’Hara in the Catholic League championship 13 days earlier, the starting five of Orihel, Allen, Baxter, junior Bri Bowen, and senior Dana Kiefer, and top subs Shannon Morgan and Delaney Finnegan were able to watch from the bench while junior Tess Fleming and the sophomore quartet of Allie Fleming, Campbell McCloskey, Lauren Tretter, and Shaina Klos dribbled away the final seconds.
“This was everything,” said Orihel. “Coming into the beginning of the season, we didn’t know if we were going to have a season. To be able to work all season to get to this point . . . this was our goal last year, so we really wanted to get it here, especially for the seniors and everything we went through. We’re definitely going to have a legacy.”
Orihel said the Lady Vikings started playing their best ball during the second half of the regular season. She credits Wood’s “amazing” defense for jumpstarting Wood’s success.
Bowen also cited Wood’s defense as the major factor in ruining Villa Maria’s previously perfect season.
“They wanted to hold the ball, so we just had to pressure them,” said Bowen, who for some unknown reason became a constant target of Villa’s obnoxious fan base, which she ignored like a celebrity accustomed to rude paparazzi. “We had to force turnovers so we could get the ball back on offense. Defense was the game.”
Enjoying the rare distinction of claiming league and state titles, the Lady Vikings were asked to compare the difference between carrying around a plaque and donning a gold medal.
“That’s so tough,” said Orihel. “They’re both special in different ways. The Catholic League was something special because of how difficult the competition was all year. Having three PCL teams win state championships shows the strength of the league. There’s something so special about celebrating that plaque. It’s hard to explain and some people don’t understand.
“Wood has been in the PCL championship 13 out of 15 years and won three, which shows how difficult it is to win. Winning states was the icing on the cake. To be able to win both in the same year isn’t done often, and it was amazing to be able to end my career with that.”
Allen felt similarly.
“Both championships hit me in a different way, but both felt just as good,” said Allen. “There were a lot of different emotions and just relief with winning the PCL because of losing my first two years.
“Winning states was almost like capping off one of the most unique and one of the hardest seasons. It being the last game and ending it like that was amazing. But winning both with this specific group of people was truly one of the most memorable and special experiences of my life, and it’s a season I will never forget.”
She’s not alone.
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)