Runyan sisters sparkle for Moorestown Friends basketball

Moorestown Friends sisters Isabella Runyan, left, and Alyssa Runyan. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff

Most don't realize that basketball was their dad's first love.

Jon Runyan, an Eagles tackle during the team's glory years in the early 2000s, didn't even take up football until his junior year of high school. And he was tempted to accept a basketball scholarship before opting to play football at Michigan.

He still loves the roundball game. And that's been a big help, according to Runyan's daughters, Isabella and Alyssa, who star on the girls' basketball team at Moorestown Friends.

But more than lessons in basketball, the sisters are well-versed in what it means to be an athlete.

And that's what stands out most for the two key players of a team that has been one of South Jersey's best-kept secrets.

"I always ask my dad after every game, 'What did you think? What can I do better?' " said Alyssa, a junior forward for a team sporting a 7-2 record. "And the biggest thing is hustle. Just never stop hustling."

"He always had that aggression, that want to win," said Isabella, a freshman point guard. "And that's exactly how we play."

The Runyan sisters are the latest in a recent wave of legendary Philadelphia athletes with daughters tearing up South Jersey girls' basketball.

Mitch Williams' daughter, Nikola, led Shawnee to a state title appearance in 2015. Jeremiah Trotter's daughter, Tremil, is one of the top contributors for Rancocas Valley, the No. 2 team in South Jersey.

And Chris Therien's daughter, Isabella, is a player of the year candidate for Cherokee.

The similarities that run across these players are hard to ignore.

In the fourth quarter of a close game against Friends Central on Friday, which the Foxes went on to win, Alyssa Runyan was ripping balls out of opposing players' hands and charging the lane with a ferocity that belied her wiry 5-foot-11 frame.

There's an edge to these players. They're scrappy, tough. They're gamers, leaders who take losing personally.

Part of it is an obvious natural instinct, an edge that can't be taught.

Part of it, according to Jon Runyan is "all those little conversations, the advice we can offer that maybe someone who didn't play sports for 25, 30 years can't really fall back on."

Jon Runyan said he's proud of the way his daughters play. "They do those extra things - taking pride in defense, putting their hands in passing lanes - those little things that make for a great team."

The sisters' work ethic is one of those, can't-be-taught, natural attributes.

"We're very competitive with each other, especially in basketball," Alyssa said. "I'm always the one guarding her."

"That's one of the biggest things that has made me a better player," Isabella said.

Alyssa, averaging 7.6 points and 2.4 steals, is something of a defensive specialist for the Foxes. Soccer is her main sport, and it's what she wants to play in college.

And it makes sense. There is a soccer-like quality to her physicality in basketball, the way she blankets opponents looks more like she's man-marking them then guarding them.

"She can score any time she wanted to," said coach Mike Brunswick. "But she takes pride in being a defender and being a catalyst for us."

Isabella - averaging 10.2 points and 4.7 steals - is thriving running the point for the Foxes despite being just a freshman and playing out of her natural position. At 5-foot-10, she's used to playing forward.

But she's the best ball-handler on the team, and she said she's willing to do whatever her team needs to win.

"We knew how good she was," Brunswick said. "But both players just play with an energy that everyone feeds off of."

Playing in the Friends League, Moorestown Friends isn't exposed to South Jersey the way other teams are. Most of its league games are against opponents from Pennsylvania.

But the Foxes want to make a name for themselves in this area. They already beat perennial South Jersey power Haddon Township on Dec. 21. It started a buzz around the team, and it's palpable.

The team plays with energy. They obviously love the game. They're close on and off the court.

And if these are the attributes they want to be known for, it makes sense to look to the Runyan sisters - South Jersey's latest throwback athletes.

"We're extremely close as sisters. We tell each other everything. We never really fight," Isabella said before pausing and adding with a smile, "OK, maybe we fight sometimes. But we make up right away."

cmelchiorre@phillynews.com