Kaitlyn Orihel shows toughness in just about everything she does on a basketball court.
Take February 6 for example, with the final seconds ticking off the clock, Orihel caught a cross-court pass from Izzy Larsen, took a single dribble and buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Cardinal O’Hara. Or, in the first game of the season, when a fall would lead to a two-month test of physical and mental fortitude.
Toughness is Orihel’s game and she’s leaning on it again with the end of her junior season currently on hold.
While she and her Vikings teammates wait and hope for a way to conclude the PIAA tournament, Orihel has been picked as the Montgomery/Reporter/Times Herald’s Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“It’s always just been how I go at it,” Orihel said. “I’m a super-competitive person in general. I think that is part of it and for me, I always tell myself no everything is scoring. You can always be tough and make those kind of plays on the court and that’s what I choose to focus on.”
Prior to the spread of the coronavirus halting the 2019-20 season ahead of the state quarterfinals, the junior and her team had been rolling. Orihel, a 5-foot-9 guard, was averaging 15.1 points per game before the Class 5A tournament halted with Wood slated to face PCL rival Archbishop Carroll in the round of eight.
Orihel’s physical and mental toughness were tested plenty this season thanks to a moment in the team’s season-opening game against Long Island Lutheran (NY) at the Art Turner Memorial. Going up for a layup, she fell and landed on her left knee.
“I ended up playing up over a month on a fractured kneecap,” Orihel said. “Even as it started to get better, I had to deal with the mental part of it, having it still be there and being worried about it. My teammates were so supportive and helpful through it.”
Wood coach Mike McDonald saw Orihel’s toughness pretty early on when she earned her way into the starting lineup as a freshman. However, playing through what was initially thought to be a bone bruise for more than a month told McDonald all he really needed to know.
“It’s her toughness for sure,” McDonald said. “It’s the way she plays, she’s physical, she’s always hitting the floor, she almost has no regard for her body, she goes to the rim as hard as she can, she gets hit and she plays defense the same way. She just plays the game at 100 percent all the time.”
She wouldn’t find out the true extent until after the team got back from its trip to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona right before Christmas and ended up sitting out about two weeks’ worth of practice. Physically, it came down to her ability to push through the pain from game to game and even practices but the mental side pushed her toughness.
Orihel thrives off an explosive ability to get to the rim, something she didn’t have playing through a painful injury. It affected her scoring numbers early but not her will to be on the floor or chip in other ways and when that explosiveness returned, that’s when McDonald saw her take off in the second half of the season.
“You could see, every time she banged it she was in pain, there were times where she’d ask to sub out then go right back in the game,” McDonald said. “Being a high-level recruit, she could have wanted to sit out not wanting these coaches to see her playing at not her highest level and she chose to the put the team first, play and put herself out there.
“I have a lot of respect for her, not just the toughness, but wanting to put herself out there for the team and play.”
Ultimately, Orihel was able to push the lingering doubts and concerns to the back of her head and just play and, it helped she could lean on her teammates on and off the court. It took about another month after the Arizona trip for everything to come back.
“The Neumann-Goretti game at Wood, I felt 100 percent,” Orihel said. “I played the first half with my knee brace and the second half without, which for me was a big step. The brace was kind of a reminder that something was wrong so once I took that off, I was fine.”
After falling short in the PCL title game last season and getting knocked out – ironically by Carroll – in the state quarterfinals, Orihel and Wood came into this campaign eyeing championships. The Vikings had plenty back, but also added transfers in senior Izzy Larsen and junior Dana Kiefer and were asking some younger players to step into bigger roles.
Orihel, who plays AAU with the Philly Belles, made it a point to be in the gym with her Wood teammates all summer and on a personal level, she focused on improving her ball handling. Her game is still expanding, with Orihel adding she wants to add a pull-up shot and some midrange to her arsenal, but she contributed 111 rebounds, 45 assists, 31 steals and 13 blocks this season.
McDonald thought the injury taking some of her explosiveness early on may have naturally slowed the game down but whatever it was, he felt Orihel was reading the game better this season.
Her statistical contributions are strong but Orihel has also become one of the team’s leading players in other ways. Orihel, along with senior Lindsay Tretter and junior Noelle Baxter, serves as a co-captain and has found her voice in that capacity as the season has carried on.
“She was tremendous, all my captains were really good this year but with her, her actions speak louder than anything,” McDonald said. “Kids can see she works so hard and plays so hard and performance-wise, what she can do in a game but she’s also always really positive and supportive of her teammates. She’s always encouraging them, clapping for them and when she’s out of the game, she’s one of the loudest cheerers.”
For a player who attacks the rim like Orihel does, that toughness is essential. She shot better than 60 percent inside the arc this season, averages nearly five free throws per game and the “and-one” might as well be her trademark play.
It’s a mentality she thinks really started to manifest in middle school and one that’s helped establish an already impressive resume. In three seasons at Wood, Orihel has made the All-PCL team three times with two straight first team nods and has a third team and first all-state selection to her name.
“It comes from a lot of preparation because you want the ball in your hands in those type of situations,” Orihel said. “For me, it’s the feeling you get from it that makes it all worth it.”
Orihel added another milestone in late January when she scored her 1,000th point, on one of those and-one plays, against Carroll. She called it a “surreal” feeling to have accomplished it so soon.
While her knee injury presented a challenge early in the season, Orihel now faces a totally different one along with her team. The PIAA postponed the state tournament for a minimum of two weeks, but there’s no assurance it will be able to resume at all. Self-isolation and quarantine measures have limited the ability of teams across the state to get together on their own and practice, including the Vikings.
This season’s team is particularly close and Orihel said her teammates have played a pivotal role in her success. Whether it’s Ryanne Allen or Tretter’s spacing, Larsen’s passing or things like Baxter setting the right screen, it all adds up.
“In our group chat the other day, someone said it’s been three days since we’ve seen each other, which is a record for us,” Orihel said. “We miss each other so much, we want to be able to see each other but hanging out with a group of 15 girls probably isn’t the best idea right now. We miss school, we want to go back.”