With scoring mark secured, Pena hoping to lead BHS girls basketball in state tournament

Crunch the numbers and it’s easy to see how impressive the accomplishments of Burlington High senior Aylvia Pena are on the basketball court.

Consider this.

The captain of this year’s BHS girls basketball team missed significant time last season, five games,  with a concussion.

Her sophomore year? That wasn’t easy either.

That’s when Covid-19 introduced itself to the world and Burlington played a 13-game season, with no playoffs. While the Red Devils went a perfect and historic 13-0 and won the Middlesex League tournament, there were no MIAA playoffs.

That likely cost Pena seven or eight more games, at the minimum. 

As a freshman, Pena was a ninth grader on a team loaded with talented veterans and simply had to wait her turn.

“She’s lost 13 games out of her overall career,” said BHS coach Pam MacKay. “That’s really missing more than half a season.”

When Pena swished a fourth-quarter 3-pointer in a 67-46 victory over Stoneham at Burlington on Jan. 31, she became the all-time leading scorer in program history, passing former BHS great Karen Grutchfield, who set the record more than 40 years earlier.

Pena admitted with a laugh after the game that when her accomplishment was told to the home crowd by the public address announcer, she was confused as to what was happening.

“I had no idea,” Pena said of the announcement. “I thought I was getting thrown out of the game or something. I didn’t know what was going on. When they said my name, I said ‘Oh no.’”

Her coach, however, knew exactly what was going on, and was thrilled.

“To have her at this point,” said MacKay, herself a former Red Devil standout, “and to have to accept that you get what you get, and still plug away at it, is just great. Last year when she was injured, the team really grinded and did enough to get the job done without her and make the tournament. She was so supportive of them on the bench, I just love watching the films and seeing her getting up (cheering). For her to get an individual accolade like this, and I know that she would always rather us be winning, I’m so proud of her.”

Pena is an outside shooter. 

She has a quick release that defenders have to be aware of any time Pena handles the ball past midcourt. 

Get stuck behind a pick? Pena will get that 3-pointer flying. 

Stare at the coach for a half-second? Sorry, that shot just went up.

Cover her too close? That would result in a crossover dribble and a layup.

In other words, Pena is equipped with just about every weapon that a scorer has. 

Of course, the result of Pena’s offensive prowess, especially on a squad that has an abundance of up-and-coming talent throughout its roster? 

She sees plenty of defenses such as a box-and-one that basically dedicate one player to concentrating solely on stopping the other team’s top gun. 

Sometimes it’s a little more… obvious? 

Face guarding. 

Several times this season opposing players have simply stood face-to-face with Pena no matter where she stands on the floor. In some ways, it’s basketball’s biggest compliment to an offensive threat.

“Face guarding can be aggravating at points,” Pena said. “But on the other hand, I really respect the girls that are face guarding me.”

Stoneham did it.

Wilmington did it. 

Just about everyone has done it this season against Burlington, but sometimes, it doesn’t exactly work out as planned. In the Stoneham win, Pena drove to the basket more and had another big night in the scorebook. 

That’s something the face-guarding defenders don’t necessarily count on.

“She is definitely known as a 3-point shooter,” MacKay said. “So to see her get in the paint and be willing to use her body and try to battle under the rim too? I think that’s a great thing to see.”

What’s also great? When Pena shows off some passing skills that get everyone else involved too.

“What I liked tonight,” MacKay said after the Stoneham game, “was she broke that (scoring) record and the assists she had were beautiful.”

Pena had five points and two assists in the opening moments of the contest as the Devils built a 17-0 lead.

BHS had a 38-19 at halftime and Pena’s numbers at the break were eight points and six assists, four to sophomore Madison King on terrific pick-and-roll plays and two more to sophomore Savanna Scali, a blossoming scorer in her own right.

“I’ve been playing club basketball my whole life,” said Pena. “I’ve talked to college coaches and they’re not focused on scoring. The way to win games is to be a team. Yes, as much as I would love to just shoot and score myself, the way to win a game and build up your team’s confidence is to pass and share the ball.”

Needing 17 points that night, Pena still had just eight in the closing moments of the third quarter before a Pena-like sequence. A drive to the basket earned her a foul shot before a steal turned into a three-point play. Moments later, another driving layup gave Pena six points in about 90 seconds of action and 14 for the evening.

A few plays into the fourth quarter, she swished her record-breaking three.

What a fitting way to accomplish the feat.

Pena was no stranger to basketball before arriving at BHS.

Her father coached her middle school basketball team and she grew up with a basketball court in her backyard. Not a hoop, by the way, a full court. 

Pena said she started playing competitive hoops in the second grade and often took the floor against much older players.

“How do you not know a kid like that,” MacKay laughed. “I definitely knew of her coming up. You have to have those kids on your radar.”

Pena also grew up with an older brother, Khyle, that played quarterback for the Div. 1 football program at the University of Maine at Orono. Khyle Pena was also an accomplished athlete at Burlington.

“Me and him have always played the same sports,”  Aylvia said with a smile. “Obviously, he doesn’t want his younger sister beating him in something. What’s a better motivator than that?”

Pena remembers constantly competing against her brother in so many ways.

“I look back to that now and I appreciate it,” she said.

She also appreciates the record that now belongs to her. She spoke about the mark after a game, only a few feet away from a trophy case containing a ball signed by Grutchfield, that previous record holder.

“My freshman year I didn’t have that many points,” Pena said. “My sophomore year we only had 13 games and last year I had a concussion. I didn’t think (the scoring record) was possible. It’s a crazy accomplishment and I’m grateful for it.”

Pena works on her game constantly, taking shooting lessons from a private coach and also practicing as often as she can, both on her own and with the team.

MacKay is happy to see her captain earn the distinction after such a challenging career.

“She understands the game of basketball,” MacKay said. “I think there were moments this year that she got frustrated and maybe got a little shortsighted on what the goal was, but she just continued to encourage her teammates and get them to be a part of it.”

Pena still has one accomplishment within reach, becoming Burlington High’s first-ever 1,000-point scorer. 

After being 4-9 at one point this winter, the Red Devils finished with a 9-11 overall record. Despite finishing under .500, Burlington still qualified for the state tournament courtesy of the MIAA power rankings, which weigh quality-of-opponent throughout the season.

BHS, seeded 26th in Div. 2, plays its first-round game on Tuesday against Ursuline Academy of Dedham, the 39th seed of the 44 eligible teams in the state. With a victory, Burlington would then play on the road against seventh-seeded Newburyport, and nobody would ever guess who coaches Newburyport these days.

Karen Grutchfield.

Imagine if Pena has a chance to score career point No. 1000 against a team coached by the Burlington legend she took the scoring title from?

“You couldn’t write it better than reality if that happens,” added MacKay.

With at least one state tournament playoff game left on Burlington’s schedule, Pena has 973 career points and needs 27 – it’s not out of the question.

Whether she reaches 1,000 points or not, Pena has plenty to look back on, especially so much success in the face of adversity that came in several forms. Pena said her advice to younger players would be to enjoy what you choose to participate in.

“You just have to want it,” she said. “You have to find your reason why. If you don’t find your why, you have to find something else. If you’re playing for a reason, that’s the biggest motivation, but if you’re playing because you were forced to play, it’s not going to help you in the long run. You’re just going to lose your drive eventually.”

Pena found her motivation early and kept it going, one  smooth jump shot at a time.

“I still have my why,” she said. “I decided in the spring after my AAU season that I wasn’t going to play in college. I’ve been playing for so long and I’ve gone through so much that I realized I can help athletes rather than be an athlete.”

That leads Pena to her next why, studying sports psychology in college. 

After all, who would be a better guide than the Red Devil who has seen just about everything in the past four years?

“I want to help athletes,” she said.

Tuesday’s game starts at 6 p.m. in Burlington, weather permitting.