Twin Valley continues ascent, revels in program’s first state playoff win

Gene Walsh — Digital First MediaTwin Valley’s Ashlynn Lennon goes strong to the basket during game against Archbishop Wood at Harriton H.S. March 13, 2018.
Gene Walsh — Digital First MediaTwin Valley’s Ashlynn Lennon goes strong to the basket during game against Archbishop Wood at Harriton H.S. March 13, 2018.
Gene Walsh — Digital First MediaTwin Valley’s Peyton McDaniel goes for a lay up as Archbishop Wood’s Katie May defends at Harriton H.S. March 13, 2018.
Gene Walsh — Digital First MediaTwin Valley’s Peyton McDaniel goes for a lay up as Archbishop Wood’s Katie May defends at Harriton H.S. March 13, 2018.

Over the past three years, about the only thing that has been trending higher than the Twin Valley girls basketball team is the Dow.

When head coach Mark Morrow took over prior to the 2015-2016 season, the Raiders were the Berks Conference equivalent of penny stock – coming off a three-win campaign.

These days, however, the program’s influx of talent combined with a heavy dose of hard work has paid off huge dividends.

Earlier this month, Twin Valley made school history by earning its first PIAA Girls Basketball Tournament victory, turning back perennial power Mount St. Joseph 51-45 in a Class 5-A opener.

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And though the Raiders saw their most successful season end at 26-4 by virtue of a 48-35 second-round loss to state superpower Archbishop Wood, it did little to diminish the satisfied feeling of seeing their program ascend to new heights.

“I would say what made this season so special is the group of girls we had,” said senior point guard Ashlynn Lennon. “We couldn’t have been successful without how well we worked together and how we had each other’s backs.”

Twin Valley – which had won just 21 times in the five seasons before Morrow took over – posted a 15-10 record in his first season, qualifying for the Berks playoffs for the first time in eight years and earning a District 3 preliminary-round win.

Then last season, the Raiders took the proverbial next step by going 20-8 and qualifying for the PIAA tourney for the first time.

Even though Twin Valley had to replace three graduated stalwarts (including 1,000-point scorer Taylor Knorr and county 3-point queen Julie Wallace), Berks girls basketball insiders knew the Raiders would be a force to be reckoned with this winter.

“We came into this year with a new regime, so to speak,” Morrow said. “But the girls came in with a maturity that belied their age.”

Led by the sensational sophomore tandem of Peyton McDaniel and Taylor Blunt and tough-as-nails veteran Lennon, Twin Valley brought home the Berks Division 1 title with a 10-0 mark while advancing to the county semifinals and District 3 semis.

Freshman guard Ava Morrow (Mark’s daughter) and 6-foot junior Cameryn Jamison rounded out the starting five, with 6-1 senior Julia Danilak, speedy senior Alyssa Gibson and Sam Phillips contributing to a guard-oriented rotation, while Julie Wangler and Em Netterville provided bench depth.

“We were very young, but the team bonded instantly and the seniors stepped up and did a great job,” Mark Morrow said.

None more than the 5-foot-8 Lennon, who set the tone on and off the court for the squad while averaging 5.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, a team-best 3.4 assists and 1.8 steals. Lennon had a season-high 13 points in a key 38-29 January victory over Governor Mifflin.

“She was our motor, a natural born leader,” Morrow said. “We knew heading into this season we go as far as she goes.”

McDaniel, a 5-11 two-guard, turned the Raiders’ homecourt into a veritable Peyton Place, leading the league in both scoring (18.0 ppg) and 3-pointers (86) while averaging a team-best 5.2 rebounds.

After competing for the U.S. team in the United World Games in Austria last June, McDaniel used that experience as a springboard to a season that saw her top the 20-point mark no less than 15 times, including a 30-point outburst against Reading High.

Blunt, an offseason transfer from Berks Catholic, proved to be the final piece of the puzzle, averaging 14.4 points per game and knocking down 58 3s.

“Those two are the best guard combination I’ve seen in a long time,” Morrow said.

Ironically enough, the Raiders didn’t exactly hit the ground running, blowing a 15-point lead in a 45-42 loss to Solanco in the opener of the Twin Valley Tip-Off Tournament.

“That first game was kind of a wake-up call,” McDaniel said. “I think when we got up like that, we were a little too confident and thought it was always going to be that easy. But we realized nothing was going to be handed to us; that we’d have to work for it.”

And work they did, reeling off a 22-game winning streak that saw them run the table in league play while showcasing a stifling defense that allowed a county-low 34.7 points per game.

“Last year we were more longer and athletic,” Morrow said. “This year we were more physically strong. But we’re never going to change our (defense-first) philosophy. We have a motto that playing good defense gives you permission to play offense.”

Playing mostly man-to-man with the occasional 1-3-1 halfcourt trap looks, Twin Valley allowed more than 45 points just four times all season.

One of those games was a heartbreaking 51-39 Berks semifinal loss to Governor Mifflin. One moment, the Raiders were up by 13 early in the second half and appeared well on their way to a county title clash with Berks Catholic. The next, they were enduring an emotional locker room scene.

“It was so tough,” McDaniel said. “We had beaten them twice in the regular season. That could have been us in the county championship. We just tried to come together and not let that happen again. Last year, we ended the season with three straight losses and were never able to bounce back.”

This year proved to be different, as the Raiders regrouped for District 3 victories over Big Spring (54-27) and Spring Grove (42-35). McDaniel had 24 points and Lennon (12) and Jameson (10) each notched double digits on the boards in the opener and Blunt had 12 points -- including a key 3-pointer in crunch time – in the quarterfinal win.

Though the Raiders were no match for eventual champion Harrisburg in a 56-40 district semi loss, they showed resilience again by bouncing back to take down Susquehannock (48-44) in a PIAA seeding game, then delivered the highlight of the year by ousting Mount St. Joseph in the aforementioned state opener. Blunt (21 points) and McDaniel (17) each knocked down five 3s in the win over Susquehannock (which had defeated Twin Valley in last year’s district semi) and McDaniel (21 points) and Blunt (17) again led the way in the state win.

Against two-time defending state champ Wood, the Raiders trailed 12-0 after a quarter before cutting it to four in the final period, but the battle-tested Vikings used a 12-0 run to settle matters.

McDaniel, who will enter her junior year 172 points shy of 1,000, wound up being named to the All-Berks team, with Blunt and Lennon being named all-division and Morrow earning honorable mention all-division status.

“Going into last year we wanted to raise the bar every year, and we did as far as counties while we got to the same spot in districts,” Morrow said. “The next one was to get a win in states and see what happens, and we did that. Anytime you get a win in states, it’s a big boost for you.

“The thing I liked about our last game is that going in they thought they belonged on the court (with Wood) and they showed they did. They were very upset they lost that game, but we just didn’t come out the way we should have. After a little time to sit back and look at it, they should know they’ve got a bright future ahead but have a lot of work to do as well.”

“Coach always says you have to set the bar high,” McDaniel said. “We just need to stay hungry.”

Should that continue to be the case, the Raiders appear to be a blue-chip offering for the forseeable future.