In the trenches

  • Towne seniors (left-right): Rebecca Gilborges, Maddie Cepparulo, Valentina Scalici, Rachel Gilborges. PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANKLIN TOWNE CHARTER ATHLETICS

  • Height advantage: Cepparulo uses her size to create mismatches for the opposing defense. Her rebounding ability seems to have rubbed off on her teammates, as Franklin Towne’s starting five grabbed more than 60 rebounds in the victory over the Railsplitters.

  • A force down low: 6-foot-1 senior center Maddie Cepparulo torched Abraham Lincoln for 16 points and 16 rebounds in Franklin Towne’s 52-45 Friday victory. The win pushed Towne to an impressive 9-2 on the season. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

When the Los Angeles Lakers were as­sert­ing their dom­in­ance en route to mul­tiple NBA cham­pi­on­ships in the early 2000s, everything re­volved around Sha­quille O’Neal. Wheth­er it was out­work­ing de­fend­ers in the post for an easy lay­up, or snatch­ing up re­bounds to put back up or dish to Kobe Bry­ant or an­oth­er team­mate for an open look on the peri­met­er, Shaq’s im­pact on how game­plans un­fol­ded can­not be over­stated enough.

Madeline Cep­par­ulo is Frank­lin Towne Charter’s Shaq.

Cep­par­ulo, bet­ter known as “Mad­die” to those at the school, is quite simply a force to be reckoned with in the lane for head coach Bri­anna O’Don­nell’s Coyotes. Her 6-foot-1 frame im­me­di­ately cre­ates match­up prob­lems for the op­pos­i­tion’s de­fens­ive unit, but it’s not just Cep­par­ulo’s size ad­vant­age that makes her such a chal­lenge for op­pos­ing coaches to pre­pare for.

What sets Cep­par­ulo apart is her hands. As she deftly show­cased in Fri­day af­ter­noon’s 52-45 Pub­lic League vic­tory over vis­it­ing Lin­coln, Cep­par­ulo has the abil­ity to get to any of­fens­ive re­bound in the lane be­fore either: a) flick­ing it back up for an easy lay­up un­der­neath, or b) kick­ing it out to an open team­mate on the peri­met­er. Even on a day where the team has a cold shoot­ing per­form­ance (as was the case against Lin­coln), Towne’s abil­ity to cre­ate second-chance op­por­tun­it­ies should carry the team far as it mo­tors to­ward its second con­sec­ut­ive post­season ap­pear­ance.

“I just want to get as many points as I can, pretty much,” Cep­par­ulo said after burn­ing the Railsplit­ters for a team-high 16 points and 16 re­bounds. “I try to open the lane up so I can either get re­bounds my­self and put the ball right back up, or pass it out to them if I see one of them open. If they can’t get it, then I just put it back up my­self.”

Most of Cep­par­ulo’s points against Lin­coln came off put­backs fol­low­ing an of­fens­ive re­bound, or a quick turn and shoot in the low block fol­low­ing a pass from one of her team­mates. Towne, which doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily have a go-to scorer as Lin­coln does (seni­or guard Aaliyah Thur­man led all scorers with 28), finds suc­cess by out­work­ing the op­pos­i­tion on both the boards and on de­fense. 

That was on full dis­play against Lin­coln (5-3 over­all), which kept the game tightly-con­tested throughout. On a day when out­side shots were not con­sist­ently fall­ing for Towne, gritty de­fense and ten­a­cious re­bound­ing put the Coyotes over the top. In fact, in ad­di­tion to Cep­par­ulo’s 16 re­bounds, fel­low starters Alex­is O’Neill (13 re­bounds), Re­becca Gil­borges (14), Rachel Gil­borges (12) and Valentina Scalici (nine) all provided yeo­man work on the glass, grabbing more than 60 boards between the five of them.

That, Cep­par­ulo said, is how Towne (9-2) will beat you.

“I think a lot of it was us just out­work­ing them, es­pe­cially on the boards,” she said. “The start­ing five has played to­geth­er for a couple of years now, so we know how to play as one out there. A win like this is a con­fid­ence build­er, be­cause I def­in­itely feel that we have the tal­ent to beat any­one in the Pub­lic League.”

Towne’s only league loss this sea­son came in the con­test be­fore Lin­coln, a close 57-51 de­feat to Cent­ral, which so far has as­ser­ted it­self as the Pub­lic League’s top dog. North­east is also an es­tab­lished power, and the Coyotes hope to show they be­long in the same dis­cus­sion when they con­clude the reg­u­lar sea­son at North­east on Feb. 7. After win­ning 16 games last sea­son and grabbing the pro­gram’s first play­off berth, the Coyotes are hungry for more.

“This year, I think we’re more de­term­ined to win it,” Cep­par­ulo said.

And with good reas­on. O’Don­nell, also Towne’s girls soc­cer coach, has won three con­sec­ut­ive Pub­lic League soc­cer crowns with help from the Gil­borges sis­ters, two of her best play­ers; Cep­par­ulo, as Towne’s soft­ball catch­er, cel­eb­rated that pro­gram’s first title in 2013. Now, they be­lieve, is the bas­ket­ball team’s time.

“The seni­ors want it badly,” Cep­par­ulo said. “We want to be able to be up there with soc­cer and soft­ball to say we all made his­tory while we were here. It would be great for us to get back to the play­offs, be­cause I think we have the skill to get to the cham­pi­on­ship and win it.”

O’Don­nell, who has coached bas­ket­ball longer than she has soc­cer at Towne, re­cog­nized Cep­par­ulo and her fel­low seni­ors’ ded­ic­a­tion as one of the main reas­on for the pro­gram’s turn­around.

“Mad­die is very good around the bas­ket, be­ing able to find space to grab a re­bound or fin­ish a lay­up,” O’Don­nell said. “Now we can put her in the high post, the low post, have her run on the baseline to draw the de­fense out and open things up for us. If we aren’t hot shoot­ing the ball, like we wer­en’t today, she’s there to col­lect. I think her pres­ence in­tim­id­ates oth­er teams, which is good for us.

“We re­peat it over and over that the play is not over un­til we score. If someone shoots, it’s your job to keep fight­ing for the re­bounds. Mad­die and the rest of our team did that today, and I think it’s de­mor­al­iz­ing to the oth­er team when we get one, two, three re­bounds on the same pos­ses­sion.”

One of the biggest keys to Towne’s hard­wood suc­cess is em­bra­cing them­selves as multi-sport stars. In the past, bas­ket­ball would just be a means to stay in shape for oth­er sports; now, the per­cep­tion has changed.

“Earli­er in their ca­reers, they were re­ferred to as soc­cer or soft­ball play­ers who also play bas­ket­ball,” O’Don­nell said. “This sea­son, from the be­gin­ning, they all said it was their goal to be com­mit­ted to this, to get bet­ter at the little things that will put us over the top. Cent­ral and North­east have that name brand we’re look­ing for, and this year, I think our girls see them­selves as a le­git­im­ate com­pet­it­or.”

If Towne wants to chal­lenge these teams — and the rest of the Pub­lic League — for a cham­pi­on­ship crown, the for­mula used to beat Lin­coln will have to be rep­lic­ated. 

“Our con­fid­ence is built back up after our loss to Cent­ral,” Cep­par­ulo said. “Be­ing in the play­offs last year was really fun, to be able to play one more game with the team. We def­in­itely have what it takes to take it this year.”

Of course, there’s also soft­ball sea­son to look for­ward to, but not un­til Cep­par­ulo is fin­ished do­ing her Shaq im­pres­sion.

“We only lost three seni­ors from last year’s soft­ball team, so we’re look­ing good,” she said. “But there’s no fo­cus on that un­til bas­ket­ball sea­son is over.” ••

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