From the return of a star to the emergence of one, the basketball court was the site of a number of notable storylines for area athletes this past week.
Two teams that are already state tournament bound picked up big boosts in the form of a dominant effort in the scoring column, and another just from the presence of a player that was sorely missed.
Innovation’s Gabe Matias and Berlin’s Ashley Wenzel are this week’s Athletes of the Week for helping lift their respective teams to new heights.
The Innovation boys basketball team was hoping to clinch a state tournament spot last week in its game against Parish Hill on Wednesday night. Matias made sure the Ravens wouldn’t have to wait another day to seal their postseason future, scoring a game-high 23 points on nine field goals to send Innovation to a dominant 66-41 win at home. He also followed that up with 22 points in a blowout win over Civic Leadership on Friday night.
For Matias, it was the latest display of the junior stepping up to fill the holes left behind from last year’s state championship group, which lost All-State scorer Lenny Oknoya as well as fellow offensive leader Carlos Gonzalez.
“With the graduation of so many key scorers from last season’s team, we have needed players to step up and contribute offensively,” head coach Matt Lance said. “This is what Gabe has been able to do so far this season. Although he is a phenomenal shooter, he has been at his best when he is aggressive and gets to the rim when it is available. When he takes high quality threes, he can really score in loads.”
Matias has certainly stepped up on the scoring front. His 11.3 points per game is the second-highest mark on the team, trailing only All-State forward LJ Hazelwood and his 15.4 points per game. His 2.2 turnovers per game is also tied for the lowest mark among the Ravens’ five starters, though Matias’ ability to see the floor and find an open teammate has been particularly impressive in the eyes of Lance.
“At times, he is almost too unselfish,” Lance said, “which is the type of personality he has.”
What excites Lance most is the fact that Matias, a first-year starter, is only getting better and will hopefully continue to improve by the time Innovation begins its quest for a repeat, this time in the tough Division II field after running through the Division V state tournament last season.
“Gabe isn’t even close to his ceiling right now as a player,” Lance said. “With the right mindset, Gabe should be averaging a double-double for us. When he decides to be aggressive, he is tenacious on the offensive glass. I’m excited for him as we start the second half of our season, because he is going to keep getting better and better, and that is only to help us get better.”
The Berlin girls basketball team knows it’s sharpshooting junior holds equal importance to the team like Matias to Innovation, and that crucial piece made her return on Wednesday night. Wenzel, who missed all of soccer season and the beginning of basketball season with a broken tibia and fibula, returned for her first game against Simsbury and helped the Redcoats pick up a win just days after the team lost its first game of the season.
“We’re definitely a better team with her on the floor,” head coach Sheila King said.
Wenzel’s importance is apparent if the team wants to improve on last year’s state semifinals appearance. As a sophomore last year, Wenzel broke five school records en route to an all-conference selection, and also had the game-winning shot in the second round of that Class M state tournament against Ansonia, breaking a 52-52 tie with 1.5 seconds left. Wenzel didn’t need any such heroics on Wednesday, but just by being back on the floor (and she received an enormous ovation from the crowd when she first checked in), Berlin becomes a more dangerous team.
Wenzel finished with seven points on Wednesday in over 15 minutes of playing time, and reported no physical problems throughout the game. That was perhaps the best news for the Redcoats, above the victory itself. The coming games will likely bring more playing time (she scored 10 points in a win over Middletown on Friday), and both Wenzel and King hope that by the time the regular season concludes, Wenzel’s endurance will be back to 100 percent and she will be ready to help lead Berlin to a state championship.