Defense leads Red Tornadoes to state rout

Mount Carmel's Dani Rae Renno shoots over Clarion's Jordan Best during a state playoff game.

If Dani Rae Renno is somehow unknown to any of Mount Carmel’s opponents, she surely isn’t by the end of pre-game introductions.

One glance at the athletic 6-foot-2 junior and it’s obvious she’ll be a handful for anyone. When she drops something around 17 points and 11 rebounds in another Red Tornadoes’ victory, it no doubt sends fans to their cars muttering about how their team would have done if not for that tall girl.

Renno’s success, though, isn’t due only to her 74-inch frame.

“Her work ethic really speaks for itself,” said Mount Carmel coach Lisa Varano. “She’s so coachable and such a hard worker. She never complains about anything, ever. If she was 5-10, she’d find a way to succeed on the court. It might be different than now, and she may have to work harder in some aspects, but there’s no question she would succeed.”

There’s likely no better proof of Renno’s drive than this: The Red Tornadoes played an astonishing two-thirds of their season against state qualifiers (18 of 27 games), and Renno averaged 18.3 points per game while leading them to a 13-5 record. 

“We always try to work as a team, but especially going into big games,” Renno said. “Our team usually thrives under pressure — a game we really need to win, or a game we know we need to execute well to get the job done. So we’re always hyping up everyone in the locker room. I don’t know if I feel any added responsibility, but I really feed on that energy.”

Renno was a marvel in her second year as a starter, averaging 17.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks for the District 4 Class 2A champions. She was a repeat Heartland Athletic Conference-Division III first-team honoree, as well as a strong candidate to again land on the Sports Writers Pennsylvania All-State team after a third-team nod a season ago.

In a year when the Valley was teeming with standout players — headlined by Greenwood senior and area scoring leader Kenedy Stroup, and district champions in Danville’s Corinna Petrus and Northumberland Christian’s Emily Garvin — Renno was selected as the 2019-2020 Daily Item Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

Renno propelled Mount Carmel to its eighth district title in nine seasons and an 11th consecutive state playoff appearance. The Red Tornadoes bowed out in a second-round loss to Bishop Guilfoyle a game after Renno alone outscored Clarion (21-19), her eighth 20-point game of the season.

“I think in a lot of our bigger games there were just times when she put the team on her back,” said Varano, who is 232-48 in 10 seasons. “The girls look to her — sometimes to a fault — but it’s not like we’re saying, ‘Dani has to touch the ball every time down the court.’ She has just delivered time and time again, and the girls have such confidence in her to do that that they just feel, ‘Let’s get it to Dani.”

There was a six-game sequence that bridged the holidays in which Mount Carmel faced five state qualifiers. Renno went for at least 20 points in all but one of the games, capping the string with back-to-back 26-point efforts at Danville and Shamokin, and averaging 21.7 as the Red Tornadoes went 4-2. She became the 14th girl in program history to score 1,000 career points in their district opener, finishing the season with 1,072.

“My height is a definitely a big part of my success, but I also work hard every day,” she said. “As a team we have to work hard to get where we want to be. We’re lifting at 7 in the morning when no one wants to be there but we all go because we want to win later on. We all work hard, whether it’s lifting in the summer or going through the hard practices at the beginning of the season right through the playoffs.”

Varano asked Renno to stray from the relative comfort of the lane on occasion for various defensive sets, including a particular press that stationed her far in the frontcourt. Her footwork and athleticism — Renno was the district’s discus champion last spring — combined with her stature to frustrate other mobile bigs.

“When you have such a size advantage growing up, you’re taught not to leave the paint: ‘They’ll come to you, Dani,’” Varano said. “When we got deeper into the playoffs there was a need for her to play on the perimeter more, but she likes to do that. When we have her out pressing, she’s like, ‘I love this! It’s great!’”

“Defense was one of my weak points, and I think I was able to step my game up,” Renno said. “I’m definitely very competitive. It only takes one person not making a stop for the other team to score a bucket.”

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