NW’s Topa, Gilbert’s Arel ready for Act 2

They are friends and competitors with underclassmen status and upper classmen games. Impact players from Day 1. You wonder what Emily Arel and Maddie Topa have in store for us this basketball season. And you should be excited thinking about the possibilities.

As freshmen a year ago, The Gilbert School’s Arel and Northwestern Regional’s Topa didn’t arrive on the scene, they exploded on the scene. They didn’t find their way, they showed the way.  If they were ever first-year players you didn’t know it and now as sophomores, the opposition should be on code red alert status. DEFCON 1 – type readiness needed.

Arel arrived on the scene with some notoriety. People had heard about her and the word had spread – she can play. It all may have been understated. A certified energy bolt with no fear, the 5-foot-4 guard averaged scored 475 points while averaging a robust 18.3. Across town in Winsted a scant two miles away give or take a few wind sprints, she had some company.

Topa, a 5-foot-9 forward, tossed in 434 points, posting a 17.1 average. Maybe slightly less known than Arel  around the BL, it didn’t take long for the game to get equal billing and the idea that Winsted was double trouble for teams stopping off at the end of Route 8 or having to host the Yellowjackets or Highlanders.

Arel and Topa are contrasting styles with similar results. Arel is the dynamo, a blur of motion, demanding her conclusion. Topa will take what you give her and then create more.  Both will have their say in different manners.

Topa almost surprised herself a year ago, at least going into the season.

“My goal was to make varsity,” she says with a year-later smile. “I knew what I could do; I just didn’t think I would get a chance. “

Sounds a bit incredulous considering the end results but not so according to Northwestern coach Fred Williams.

“It’s unusual for me to play freshmen,” the legendary coach said.

Whatever doubts Topa had were dispelled quickly.  A good first game, a multitude of minutes and a 29-point effort against Housatonic settled matters.

“I got more confident and when we started struggling with offense I thought I could be the person to take shots to get us going,” Topa said. “After the 29-point game I knew what I could do and my teammates believed in me. “

Topa is a headache for opponents because of her well-rounded game. She has three-point range and can get to the rim. After a summer of AAU ball and being coach boy former Boston Celtic, Providence College All-American and Wilby High star Ryan Gomes, the game has only gotten better.

Her personal  goal is to hit 1,000 points this season, maybe a stretch with a team that likes to spread the ball but certainly not out of the question. In the meantime, Williams sees a good player only getting better.

“Maddie has handled adjustments very well and has improved her game from the beginning of last year until now,” Williams said. “She is just really confident. She doesn’t mind rebounding, handling the ball and would just as soon go to the hoop or take the outside shot.  She is tough for opponents to guard. “

Topa also has the big-time gene. In this season’s opener against Thomaston Northwestern was trailing by five points midway through the third quarter and she was struggling through an off-shooting night with just six points. The fourth quarter arrived and the on-switch was found. Nine points and a one-point win at the end.  The good ones just keep coming.

A few miles away Arel is ready to do her thing. If Topa is more methodical misery for opponents, Arel is blink and burn. You blink and she burns- you. With parking-lot range and a rapid release she can turn a game in that blink.

Ask Thomaston. With Gilbert  trailing the eventual Class S champions by nine points at the half in the semifinals of the Berkshire League Tournament last season, Arel came out in the third quarter and drained a trio of three-pointers in less than two minutes, one from near the concession stand in the hallway, and Gilbert went on to post a stunning upset.

Gilbert rode the high-scoring guard to the Class S quarterfinals before eventually losing to Thomaston in a rematch, but it was a banner season for the Yellowjackets.

Freshman be darned, Arel came into the season with making a difference on her mind.

“I wasn’t thinking so much scoring but I knew I could make an impact on the team,” Arel said. “I went in trying to make an impact. We had dynamic chemistry and that made the team a lot better. “

Long-time Gilbert coach Gerry Hicks was impressed.”

“ (Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer) Ellen Geraghty (1994-98) made that kind of impact with a good supporting cast but I haven’t seen anybody make the kind of impact Emily did with the kind of supporting cast we had last season,” Hicks said.

“I knew I would have to come in and step up to be that player on this level,” Arel said. “The team trusted me so much.”

Arel’s season, highlighted by a bevy of 20-point games including 28 against Bristol Central, saw defenses being designed to slow down the mercurial guard who plays like she was shot out of a cannon. Bring you oxygen tank to keep up. Most defenses struggled as Arel scooted to the hoop or went long-range.

This season she knows what to expect.

“I won’t change anything, I know it is coming,” Arel said. “I know I have to be better conditioned. I still go in to every game thinking they can’t stop me. I have to have that kind of mindset. It’s more pressure on me but I don’t fear that much. The bar is set. I will plateau, get worse, get better. I like the pressure. “

Hicks just knows that Arel will have a large say in Gilbert’s fortunes.

“”I expect her to provide us with leadership and she has to be a floor general,” Hicks said. “We have a pretty good idea of what other teams will try to do with her and we will make some adjustments. I don’t expect Emily to go down. “

Arel doesn’t have too many person al goals but she longs for a BL title and would love a state crown.

Whatever Topa and Arel give us this year. You know it’s going to be good.

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