By RICK PETERSON
Anybody who follows high school basketball in Topeka knows what Highland Park 6-foot-7 senior CJ Powell is capable of.
After all, Powell has been a key component of Highland Park's team since he stepped on campus and averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds as a junior, helping lead the Scots to a 15-8 record and a Class 5A state tournament appearance.
But CJ wasn't CJ early in the 2020-21 season, at least not on a consistent basis, and neither were the Scots, who struggled to a 3-5 record out of the gate.
But both Powell and Highland Park seem to be hitting their stride heading into the most important stretch of the season, with the Scots winning six straight games entering Tuesday night's game at Topeka High while Powell is coming off 31 and 28-point performances last week in wins over Emporia and Seaman and added 19 points in Monday's 57-50 Centennial League win at Emporia.
Powell started his senior year with a sub-par 7-point effort in a 54-40 loss to Hayden and averaged just 10.3 points prior to the holiday break before steadily raising his scoring average and his game since then.
"It was tough,'' Powell said of his start to the year. "But I just had to get in the gym and put in more work in order to get better. I got in the gym by myself, where my happy place is, and just had to play and just get myself right for the next game. Always keep your head up.''
It was also frustrating for Highland Park coach Michael Williams to watch as the experienced Scots struggled early, but he likes the way his team is playing as postseason nears, with Powell leading the charge.
"I think the reality of it is that we're banking on our horses,'' Williams said. "We're banking on our experienced guys and when our experienced guys don't (play well) we are going to struggle.''
Willams thinks Powell has used his early-season struggles as fuel to return to the form he flashed last season.
"I think there's been motivation in his direction for CJ as of late,'' Williams said. "It ain't about the accolades and stuff like that, but a high school kid, they want that. I think he's seen some of the things, his name not mentioned, him not being acknowledged at times and the reality of it is he just wasn't putting numbers up, but we know what's inside of him and we know what he's capable of and I think he's starting to understand those things along the way.
"It's like, 'Hey, we get what's happening, we get what other guys are doing and we know what you're capable of doing as well, too.' The biggest part of it is we just need CJ Powell. We need CJ Powell to be himself. We need CJ Powell to be the most dominant player in the city and if we don't get that we're going to struggle. If we do get that I think we kind of get back to playing that Highland Park basketball that we've been trying to get to.''