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.” ••