Better Together: Archbishop Wood’s Orihel and Baxter forged friendship through long career as teammates

They’ve been teammates for nearly a decade, they’re best friends off the court and might as well be sisters.

Friday night, the final season of Kaitlyn Orihel and Noelle Baxter’s playing career alongside each other begins as the Archbishop Wood girls basketball team finally hits the court. It’s a partnership that’s been wildly productive for the Vikings program but also for the two seniors who couldn’t have imagined what was ahead for them when they first met as fourth graders.

Heading into their ninth season as teammates, Orihel and Baxter are hoping their series finale includes a couple championships.

“It’s kind of sad in a way, it almost marks the end of an era for us and not to sound too sentimental, but our childhood together,” Baxter said prior the team’s practice Thursday. “But it’s exciting too, she gets to play at Villanova, I’m going to Kutztown, so we get to take our talents elsewhere. At the same time, I’m going to miss playing with her, we play really well together and I don’t think I’m going to get that with anyone else.”

It would have still been a good pairing if they just kept it related to basketball, but what started as two girls on the same team grew into such a strong friendship that Orihel and Baxter consider each other a part of their own families.

“I know her as well as I know myself,” Orihel said. “It is sad but it’s also really exciting to hopefully end it the right way.”

The duo’s relationship began in fourth grade when they came together on the same Upper Makefield Heat travel team. Most of that team is still playing basketball but for Baxter and Orihel, it was the start of a long journey together they couldn’t see having played out any other way.

On first impressions however, that future might not have seemed all that likely.

“It was my first year starting basketball, we were doing ‘around the world,’ it’s my first drill and she’s hitting me in the back yelling ‘Go, go, go!,’” Baxter said. “My first thought was ‘I have to play with this girl for the next however many years,’ but we ended up growing so close. I guess that first impression was a little rough, but we got there.”

“I feel like most people think I’m a little crazy,” Orihel said. “I think from the beginning, we really liked playing together, I definitely didn’t have a negative first impression but she wasn’t yelling in my ear either.”

As eighth graders, Baxter and Orihel were going to split up as far as AAU was concerned but there was a mutual desire to remain teammates. Baxter, who went on to play for the Mid-Atlantic Magic under Wood coach Mike McDonald, had already decided to play for the Vikings in high school.

Regarded as the team’s master recruiter, Baxter tried to sell Orihel, who started playing with the Philly Belles in AAU, on Archbishop Wood. McDonald joked the first time he met Orihel, he didn’t remember who she was when she turned up as an incoming freshman but now can’t imagine the program without either of them.

“They’re still great friends after all this time, but they get after it,” McDonald said. “It keeps them on their toes and it sets a great role model for the younger players who see they can compete really hard and still be best friends off the court.”

McDonald compared Baxter and Orihel’s relationship to former Wood standouts Shannon May and Cassie Sebold, who similarly started out as longtime teammates and developed a strong friendship away from the court.

Baxter, who would have attended William Tennent and Orihel, who would have gone to Council Rock North, have figured out how to be competitive without it affecting their friendship. The two match up constantly during practice and while both hate losing, anything that happens on the court stays between the lines.

“Instead of comparing ourselves to each other, I mean Kaitlyn has always been awesome so comparing myself to her would have made for a rough eight years, we’re always lifting each other up and challenging each other,” Baxter said. “That’s what helped us most spending all this time together.

“I couldn’t imagine not being her friend because of something that happened during basketball.”

Both Orihel and Baxter have younger siblings but with a few years’ gap between them and their siblings, they’ve built a sisterly bond with each other. They serve as each other’s go-to for anything and everything, basketball-related or otherwise.

“She’s like the twin sister I didn’t have,” Orihel said. “She’s also pretty much a big sister to my siblings. My family and her family are basically one big family at this point.”

Had they split as teammates after eighth grade, Baxter thinks they’d still be close but nearly to the point they are having stayed together at Wood. It’s not even that uncommon for one to show up at the other’s house even if the other one isn’t home.

“Sometimes I let myself in her house,” Orihel said.

“She really does know the pin to my house, it’s actually a little scary,” Baxter added.

Their bond shows on the court as well. Baxter almost has a sixth sense of where Orihel is going to be at any given moment and Orihel said she can’t even begin to count the amount of easy hoops Baxter has set up for her.

Orihel, the PA Class 5A Player of the Year last season, said she’s tried to incorporate the way Baxter sees the floor into her game and play with that same level of unselfishness. On the other hand, Baxter has tried to take on some of what she called her teammate’s “court presence.”

“When you’re on the court with her, you know she’s going to be the best player,” Baxter said. “When she drives to the net, she’s going to score, she’s not going to let you stop her. It’s that clutch dominance that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else have.”

Like any good duo, they have a signature move where Orihel makes a back cut and Baxter drops the ball right in her path for a layup. Discussing it, Baxter joked they were giving away their secret to which Orihel replied “if they haven’t figured it out by now, they’re not going to.”

“I’m going to miss having someone I’m that close with on my team,” Orihel said. “If something happens, she’s the first one I tell, it’s hard to be that close with someone on and off the court. I think with the history we have, it’ll be hard to find that with someone else.”

As successful as they’ve been and Wood has been in their tenure, Baxter and Orihel are still seeking to go out as champions. They’ve been in the PCL final the last two years, but haven’t been able to hoist the trophy yet and are still after their first state title.

The seniors, who are serving as co-captains along with senior Dana Kiefer and junior Ryanne Allen, have kept their teammates motivated despite the extended delay to their season starting. Wood hosts Archbishop Carroll to open the season on Friday night.

“The past three years not walking away with that big championship like states or PCLs has been hard,” Orihel said. “I think if we’re able to finish our last season with that, it would be the perfect ending.”

Unlike most years, only the top two teams in the PCL standings will play for the league title, so every game has taken on even more importance this winter.

“I think they’re going to play every game like it’s their last,” McDonald said. “I know that’s a cliché but that really is their mindset, every time they step on a court; they want to win that game because they want their career to end in victory.

“They’ve been two special kids for me as their coach, they each have such a great work ethic but they’re also having fun while they’re doing it.”

While they’ll finally go their separate ways next year, the duo doesn’t see any reason their friendship will change. They’ll still be each other’s first call and Baxter said she’s already mapped out the best way to get from Kutztown to Villanova so she can visit.

“Even if we didn’t play basketball together, I think she’d still be my best friend,” Orihel said.

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