Annie McKenna and Kaitlyn Aylward have been playing basketball since kindergarten and have been teammates since they were in second grade.
The Trinity High School seniors have enjoyed unprecedented success together. Now in their final season together, McKenna and Aylward are poised to take the Blazers to heights they have never reached even as they chart a course through a sea of adversity.
“I can’t believe it’s my last year,” McKenna said. “It’s been fun. I still have that goal of a state championship and that will never change.”
While the names of their teammates have changed over the years, McKenna and Aylward have done little else except win.
Their grammar school team at St. Celestine went 151-0 during their time there and appeared on the Today Show.
The winning has continued at Trinity. McKenna, a 5-5 point guard, is a four-year starter who has guided the Blazers to an 83-19 record. Last winter she became the first junior to be named GCAC Player of the Year and was a Second Team IBCA All-State selection after leading Trinity to a 27-5 record and a sectional title.
Aylward, a 6-0 forward, averaged 15 points and seven rebounds and was a Fourth Team IBCA All-State pick last year. Both say they could not have been as successful without the other.
“I’m really lucky to have Annie as my point guard,” Aylward said. “I can rely on me getting the ball and getting it back to her. We work together like a duo.”
McKenna and Aylward are Trinity’s version of John Stockton and Karl Malone. McKenna is one of the best point guards in the state who can drive in among the trees without getting her shot blocked, while Aylward mixes the skills and touch of a shooting guard with the muscle of a power forward.
“She’s always been my post player and it’s nice that she can also shoot the ball,” McKenna said. “We have a good basketball IQ so I think we work well together.”
The savvy McKenna makes others around her better by getting everyone involved. She plays as if she has the ball on a string and rarely commits turnovers even against withering presses.
Never was that more evident than in last year’s sectional final, when McKenna scored the game-winning basket as Trinity snapped Whitney Young’s 137-game home winning streak.
“We have no press-breaker, basically,” Trinity coach Mike Valente said. “We just give Annie the ball. (Rich South) was trying to trap (last week) and I said to the girls, ‘Don’t worry about the trap, just go. You get open, she’ll get you the ball.'”
How does she do it?
“I think it is my court vision,” McKenna said. “I can see the open player running down the court and be able to make that pass.”
That ability makes McKenna a conundrum to guard against, which is why she is so effective on the drive.
“I just try to open the lane and once I start driving the shot will be open and they will stay back on me,” McKenna said. “You’ve got to work inside-out and it will work out.”
Things haven’t worked out quite as expected this season, which began with head coach Eddie Stritzel suspended for the first five games for an alleged recruiting violation.
Stritzel then abruptly resigned Nov. 30, the day before he was due back, stunning everyone and upsetting the players. Three assistant coaches resigned in solidarity with Stritzel, saying he was forced out, leaving Valente, a second-year assistant, at the helm.
Despite the turmoil, Trinity took top-ranked Montini to the wire the next day before losing 44-41. After a loss to Marshall, the Blazers (8-3) have won four straight and the leadership of McKenna and Aylward, the team’s only seniors, has been a big reason for that.
“(The controversy) is a lot for adults, so I can imagine what’s going on with them,” Valente said. “We couldn’t have done it without those two.
“They really were the glue. They brought everybody together when things were starting to get torn apart at the seams. They had a team meeting saying this is our senior year, this is how we do it here; our goals are still the same and let’s go.”
Aylward admitted at the time that her feelings were hurt by the ouster of Stritzel, whose daughter Annie is a freshman guard, but now she’s focused on her teammates.
“Being seniors, we have to make sure all the younger kids are working together,” Aylward said. “Yeah, it sucks that he left, but we have to move on and just come together as a team because our goal is to win state.”
McKenna made sure that message got through to the younger girls.
“I told them to stay focused on our goal,” McKenna said. “I thought we handled the situation pretty good since it happened so fast and we have so many young players. It was kind of hard for them to understand at first but I think we’re moving on.”
The situation forced the quiet McKenna into a more vocal role within the team, while it brought Aylward’s feistiness to the forefront.
“Kaitlyn is like the iron fist,” Valente said. “She comes down on everybody and Annie leads by example.
“Kaitlyn has no problem grabbing them and saying, ‘hey, get over here.’ So they are two different types of leaders but they get the same results.”
But they won’t be going down the same path in the future. Aylward, an aspiring nurse, will play at St. Francis with former teammate Patricia Stritzel.
McKenna plans to major in business and is on the verge of committing to a Division I school. She is the youngest of five siblings who were all multi-sport high school athletes, including two sisters, Colleen and Molly, who played basketball at Fenwick. Molly was a teammate of Tricia Liston’s on the 2010 team that finished third in the state.
Annie, who also plays soccer, might be the smallest of the five but has arguably the most talent.
“I think you’re going to see her sign with a good Division I school,” Valente said. “I think she’s a very valuable commodity.
“Looks are deceiving. (College coaches) fall for looking at the tall girls but it doesn’t mean they’re great players. I always tell them, if you lined up all the girls against a wall, (McKenna) would be the last one you’d pick, but when you put them on the court, she’s the first one you pick almost every single time.”
McKenna is averaging 11 points, eight assists and four steals and has 1,479 career points, while Aylward averages a team-best 16 points and nine rebounds. But both girls want their legacy to be that they led the Blazers to the school’s first state championship in any sport.
“(Graduating) will be kind of bittersweet,” Aylward said. “It will be nice to move on to college and play on the next level, but it will be really sad to leave Trinity and our legacy here.”