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Larsen finds a perfect landing spot at Archbishop Wood

Archbishop Wood’s Izzy Larsen drops in a free throw during the PCL championship game on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (Rick Cawley/For MediaNews Group)

Izzy Larsen didn’t envision herself ending up at Archbishop Wood.

Last spring, with her family relocating back to Pennsylvania from Atlanta, Larsen was weighing options on what school she would spend her senior year of high school at but didn’t see Wood as a real option. Call it fate, an intervention or a preseason assist by Noelle Baxter but Larsen’s visit to the Warminster-based Catholic school changed her mind.

Larsen and the Vikings girls basketball team couldn’t have imagined a better landing spot or fit for each other as Wood heads into Saturday’s opening round of the PIAA 5A girls basketball tournament.

“I was not dead-set on coming here, I knew people at other schools in the area and I did not know a soul here,” Larsen said. “I found out in March we would be moving, we were here visiting family and came to visit and not knowing anyone, I walked into the gym and Noelle came sprinting up and asked if I played basketball.

“As soon as I left, I had people texting me how nice it was to meet me, wanting to get to know me, I just felt so welcomed. I got in the car and almost had to tuck my tail and tell my mom ‘you might have been right.’ I knew I was coming here as soon as I left.”

The second of four siblings, Larsen was born in Lancaster, moved to Perkasie during her fourth grade year then headed down South when her father relocated for work. Along the way, she sprouted and surpassed both parents in height and followed older sister Elle into basketball.

Now a 6-foot-1 forward with plenty of guard skills, Larsen and her parents had a sit-down before her freshman year of high school. If they were going to invest the time, energy and money into AAU basketball and send Izzy to a school with a strong program, she had to reciprocate with plenty of hard work.

That wasn’t going to be an issue. She was all in.

Larsen landed at the Wesleyan School in Peachtree, Georgia where she played under coach Jan Azar, who not only founded the program but built it into a state champion. Azar knew Larsen before coaching her at Wesleyan and saw a player willing to do anything and everything with a tough competitive streak.

“We were at a tournament, gosh, she must have been in the fifth grade and got an elbow to the nose,” Azar said. “It was not a pretty sight but the next day she was out there playing and she may have even gone back into that same game. She is just a tough, tough competitor and she wants to win.”

Larsen described her role at Wesleyan as a “garbage man,” collecting most of her points via put-backs and cleaning up missed shots, playing defense and fitting into a role. Azar said Larsen never led the team in any category but was usually second or third in all of them. During her three years at Wesleyan, which played in Georgia’s A classification, the program went to three straight state title games, winning it all her freshman and sophomore years.

Add in two soccer state titles as a goalkeeper and Larsen has something only fellow Wood senior Lindsay Tretter can claim with a state championship. As the Vikings gear up to try and reach Hershey, Larsen is hoping that experience can help her get her teammates a PIAA title.

“I told the team (Monday) we had 19 days potentially if we go all the way to the state championship, you guys have another run next year but Lindsay and I have 19 days and we plan on getting every single one of them,” Larsen said. “I don’t care if people are tired, we’re all tired, if people want to call it quits because Lindsay and I do not get this again. Nobody should want to quit at the end and I am getting these remaining days, no doubt, and doing everything I can to make sure they end in a win.”

After Larsen’s visit to Wood last spring, several of the Vikings players reached out to coach Mike McDonald about their latest prospect. McDonald joked that all he knew was “there was a tall girl who plays basketball” maybe coming to Wood but once he got to know Larsen and saw her play in a summer league game, he was sold.

“I was blown away,” McDonald said. “We were playing (Germantown Academy) and GA had their whole team here so it was a great summer league game to have and she was just awesome. She might’ve had 30 points, hitting threes and I said ‘we hit the jackpot.’ I watched her on tape, you sometimes never know on tape but she’s big and mobile and I knew it would work out.”

Work brought the Larsen clan back to PA, and they returned to Perkasie over the summer. Again, parents sat daughter down for a talk about expectations. With Elle, a few years Izzy’s senior already done a playing career at Swarthmore and her young siblings still in middle and grade school, the move would affect Izzy most.

Certainly, uprooting right before senior year presented challenges but her new team provided a collective open-arm welcome. Tretter, who would have been the team’s only senior player, was ecstatic to have another classmate and the rest of the team was as excited to add another skilled player to the mix.

“My parents said it was going to be hardest on me, there were so many benefits for everyone in my family and I knew I just had to tough it out for a little bit and there’d be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Larsen said. “It actually was one of the best things that happened to me, I love it here.”

Larsen spent part of the summer back in Georgia playing one last season with her AAU team but when she was in PA, got in the gym with her future teammates. With the other Vikings players all busy with their own respective AAU organizations and schedules, it wasn’t easy getting everyone’s time to match up but Larsen was eager to get a head start on learning Wood’s system.

The senior admitted there were plenty of learning curves and at times, almost comical moments as she tried to catch up. Larsen and McDonald both allowed there’s still some work to be done but considering it takes some players a lot longer to get used to Wood’s system, they’re good with how things have worked out.

“I had to be willing to be uncomfortable and ask questions I thought we were stupid,” Larsen said. “There were times I’d cut to the basket and go the wrong way so I have people grabbing my shirt or my hair and almost throwing me to the other side of the court. I had to surrender myself to the situation and be uncomfortable but I picked up on it quicker than I expected.”

It didn’t hurt that Larsen’s game sense translated easily and 6-foot-1 forwards with guard skills tend to make everyone else’s life a little easier by default. Slotting in as Wood’s starting five, Larsen has embraced her role defensively and offensively but also continues to grow as a player.

Even though she only resided in Perkasie for about eight months the first time, Larsen said she kept in touch with a good deal of people she got to know there and reconnecting was easy. It also didn’t take her very long to fit into the six degrees of separation that tie so many local basketball players together.

She committed to continue her career at Northeastern in October, joining Germantown Academy senior Maddie Vizza in the recruiting class and signing on to a roster that includes former Wood standout Katie May.

“She was really the perfect piece as far as basketball goes for everybody to stay in their natural position,” McDonald said. “It’s not like she came in and took anybody’s spot, she came in and fit in. It was the perfect opportunity, the perfect fit and couldn’t have worked out any better.

“She’s been through championship runs with her other teams, she’s an outgoing personality, she knows what she’s doing and backs it up with her effort every day. Kids listen to her, they trust her, she’s nice to everybody off the court and she’s just been great.”

Once the season started in earnest, Larsen only continued to mesh better with the Vikings. She noted the team’s bevy of away games early helped strengthen chemistry but given the players spend plenty of time at each other’s houses already, she thinks it would have happened by default.

Larsen’s personality also started to rub off on her teammates. McDonald’s noticed it, especially the way Tretter and Larsen tend to celebrate a big shot off the other’s assist with an emphatic high-five or how the way she was quick off the bench ready to celebrate a made 3-pointer is a team-wide trend now.

Even buzzwords like “composure” are ingrained in the team vocabulary and the Larsen game-face has taken on a bit of a life of its own.

“Yeah, she’s crazy,” Azar said followed with a laugh. “She’s a fun kid. Life is short and sometimes people take themselves too seriously when they get into sports and I’m all about when the game is on the line, putting your game face on but basketball is also supposed to be fun. Izzy is really, really good at not taking herself too seriously and I think that really feeds into a team.”

“I invite my friends to come to games and they ask me what all the anger is about,” Larsen said laughing. “I’m usually the person smiling all the time but I guess I’m just taking it all out on the court.”

Everything Larsen has brought to the team can be summed up in the final 10 seconds of Wood’s regular season finale. In a tie game against Cardinal O’Hara, Larsen defended a drive to the rim, grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball up the floor and made a halfcourt pass to the opposite wing where Kaitlyn Orihel buried a buzzer-beating trey.

While noting it was her favorite play of the season, Larsen also described the way everyone on the floor made the sequence work and concurrently brushing off a suggestion most players would have tried a hero shot from midcourt.

“Everyone did the right thing, everyone was in the right places,” Larsen said. “Yes, Kaitlyn was in the right spot and yes, I pushed the ball up the floor but Lindsay high-tailed it up the other side of the court and forced her girl to stay with her instead of helping over to Kaitlyn. Every little thing went perfectly, I definitely watch that one a lot.”

Azar, who also changed teams this winter taking over as the coach at Hebron Christian in Dacula, Georgia, hasn’t been able to watch Wood play but wasn’t surprised her former pupil made that type of play.

“Every program has to have a player like that, one who is willing to put the other players first,” Azar said. “One of the things we say in my program is ‘do what you do and do it well,’ and Izzy really, really buys into that. She’s not going to go out and be your best 3-point shooter if you have someone who can do it better, she won’t try to be your point guard if you have a point guard, she will buy into what the team needs.”

Wood opens states against Berks Catholic in a 2:30 game Saturday at Archbishop Ryan. Whether it’s there or if the Vikings continue to advance through the state bracket, they’ll undoubtedly find themselves in a tense moment.

Larsen, who elevated her game in the PCL title game at Penn, is ready for them. It’s only been one season, but the Vikings have given Larsen plenty and she’d like to repay them by helping them lift another state championship.

“I feel comfortable in those situations,” Larsen said. “At the Palestra, everyone seemed a little freaked out and even though it was my first time there, I’m just comfortable with that kind of stuff. I actually think I do better when there’s more on the line, I don’t know what it is but because I feel so composed I can try and push that on our other girls.”

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