Kelly Maher’s Cromwell Panthers played with their usual grit and determination for a majority of their game at East Hampton, but came up a few points short, losing 35-31 to the Bellringers last Tuesday night.
“I think we were out of sync tonight, they weren’t moving well without the ball,” Maher said following the team’s third loss of the season, “They just weren’t in it tonight, the energy wasn’t there. We started off strong and we just got away from it.”
Most of the game was dominated by defense, which is normally favors the defensive-minded Panthers, however East Hampton plays with a similar philosophy and held the defending state champs to a season-low in points.
Cromwell jumped out to an early lead on a pair of rebound-putbacks from Nikki Bitinaitis and Geanna Williams, but the offense stalled and they were outscored 18-8 for the duration of the half.
From the opening tip until the final buzzer, Gyanna Russell did most of the offensive damage for the Bellringers, scoring 11 over the first 16 minutes. The all-state senior finished the game with 25 points, including 14 of the East Hampton’s 15 points in the second half.
“When we played tight defense and we did what we wanted, it created turnovers. But we have to be consistent for 32 minutes. It can’t be for just a couple of minutes and then take possessions off,” added Maher, “It’s got to be consistent the whole way through and that’s what we got to get better at.”
Bitinaitis led the Panthers in scoring with 10 points and was tasked with the tough assignment of checking Russell for most of the game. The senior point guard played the entire game and also led the team with seven rebounds and fours assists.
The do-it-all senior is the only remaining starter from last season’s Class M championship team.
The departure of Mya Villard, Emma Belcourt, Araya Lessard, and Alyssa Wright has left a leadership void that Bitinaitis is doing her best to fill.
“Right now she’s taken on more of it,” Maher said of Bitinaitis’ expanded role, “Before she could divvy it up a little bit, but now she’s trying to direct people where to go and help them improve their game. We’re asking her to do a lot more, so she’s taking a lot more of the pressure on herself.”
Late in the third quarter, Bitinaitis sparked a 9-0 run when she scored three straight, including a running bank shot in the closing seconds of the quarter.
Jenna Serrantino and freshman Vanessa Stolstajner hit consecutive three-pointers to open the fourth, giving Cromwell a 28-27 advantage. It was the team’s first and only lead since it was 4-2 in the opening minutes of the game.
As she had done all night, Russell took control and regained the lead for the home team when she stole the ball and went coast-to-coast for a layup. It would prove to be the last lead change of the night.
Trailing 33-31, Cromwell had one final chance to tie or take the lead but Serrantino missed a potential game-tying layup in the closing seconds and Russell cemented the game with two free throws.
Despite the miss, Serrantino has made a giant leap in production from a year ago when she was a sophomore. She scored five points, all in the second half, and is averaging 10 points per game this season, including a season-high 17-point outing in a loss to Pomperaug and a 16 point night in a win over Old Lyme.
“She does anything that we ask her to. If we need someone to jump in and cause a turnover, Jenna will do that,” Maher said of her junior guard, “She gives us energy on offense and she’s tough defensively because she’s pretty quick. She can guard a lot of people and she’s done a good job at giving us what we needed the last couple of games.”
Coming into the contest, Cromwell had won six straight games and was averaging nearly 62 points per game over that span.
Maher credited good ball movement and defensive pressure for the win streak, but the game against East Hampton was a reminder that the team is still a work in progress.
“First we have to get better defensively because we’re missing assignments and we’re getting caught watching the ball,” added the veteran coach, “On offense we have to move better without the ball and set better screens to get open.”
The victory snapped an eight-game losing streak for East Hampton against the Panthers and improved to the team to 11-1. Entering the week they are one of only three teams in Class S with a single loss. Russell’s experience and terrific overall play gives the team a shot to be contenders once the state tournament begins.
Maher and her girls got back to their winning ways at the end of last week, defeating Creed (77-23) on Friday and Westbrook (77-46) on Saturday. The two home victories improved the team to 11-3 entering the week.
They have a handful of regular season games and the Shoreline Conference tournament remaining before starting their defense of the Class M championship in late February.
Next up is a home game against Shoreline rival Old Saybrook this Friday, Jan 27th. The conference game tips at 7 p.m. at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
Local Basketball Action
Middletown Sweeps Wethersfield and Rocky Hill
The Blue Dragons swept their home and away basketball games against the Eagles last Wednesday night. The boys won 60-45 at MHS behind 21 points from DeAaron Lawrence and 12 more from Jordan Council. The girls secured a 66-53 road victory at WHS thanks to 18 points from Brielle Wilborn and 16 more from Jennifer Barbour.
On Friday, Middletown also took down Rocky Hill. The boys won 78-56 at RHHS behind 26 more points from Lawrence and 13 from Ahmod Privott. Alex Sikorski led Rocky Hill with 25 points in the loss. The girls won 66-53 at MHS and had five players score in double figures. Wilborn again led the Blue Dragons with 20 points. In defeat, Melanie Holmes and Nikki Lukens each had 14 points for the Terriers.
Newington and Wethersfield Split on the Hardwood
The Indians and the Eagles split their home games last Friday night. The Newington boys won 64-47 at NHS behind 26 points and 11 rebound from Matt McKinnon. Jared Simmons added 23 points in the team’s fifth straight victory. The Wethersfield girls won 38-29 at WHS, snapping a four game losing streak.
(Mike Mozzicato scored a game-high 23 points)
Sharing the ball is one of the staples of the boys’ basketball program at Wethersfield High School.
Regardless of the players or talent on the court, head coach Brian Fanelli preaches ball movement and this year is no exception.
“It’s important because with the offenses that we design you never know who is going to score. That’s a good thing because you know [the players] are all going to show up and want to play that night. We’re trying to instill that in them,” said Fanelli, “If it’s the same guy scoring all the time, maybe they could get a little selfish.”
The pass-first mentality has been a key to the program’s success since Fanelli’s arrival and again was on display last Tuesday night when the team downed visiting New Britain 66-45 for their fifth win of the season.
Mike Mozzicato was one of nine Eagle players to break into the scoring column, leading the team with 23 points.
“We play as a team and we like to pass the ball around. It gets us easy buckets and gives everyone a chance to score, ” the unselfish junior said following the game, “This year I feel like I’m getting more opportunities to do more things out there to help the team. I try to do anything that helps the team win.”
“Michael is improving every day. Everyone sees the 23 points, but he’s getting a lot better on defense and he’s stronger and taller,” Fanelli said of the 6’3” Mozzicato, “He’s worked hard in the offseason to improve his basketball skills. He loves the game and works at it.”
Mozzicato scored the game’s first two buckets on a layup and a short jumper, which opened up the floor and allowed his teammates to get good looks on the perimeter.
Fellow junior James Sullivan chipped in with 15 points and three blocks.
“After hitting a few shots, I just let the game come to me,” added Mozzicato, “I knew that they were going to play me tight, so I looked to Jimmy [Sullivan] and Connor [Peterson] to score.”
The Eagles ended the first quarter on a 9-0 spurt, following back-to-back-to-back threes from Nicholas Arcata, Aidan Nelson and Mozzicato. The trio of triples provided the home team a 17-5 cushion after the first eight minutes.
Arcata is the team’s energizer and the main setup man for Mozzicato and Sullivan. The junior point guard is the team’s only starter under 6-feet tall, but he makes up for his lack of height with his ball handling and precision passes, which helped spark a 16-3 run between the end of first quarter and first few minutes of the second quarter. He also helped with the scoring load, finishing with nine points.
In the second quarter, Wethersfield equaled their 17-point output. Freshman Connor Pace came off the bench to score six in the frame, which including an old-fashioned three-point play when he spun into the key and finished with a lefty touch shot while being fouled. Pace ended the night with eight points.
“He’s pretty relaxed and he does what we ask him to do. His post moves are pretty good and he’s another great kid,” Fanelli said of Pace, who splits his time between JV and varsity, “We try and surround our team with great kids. When you have great kids, everything else will take care of itself.”
The Eagles weathered a second-half rally from the Golden Hurricanes. New Britain marksman Melvin Deleon scored a team-high 20 points, which included six three-pointers.
Deleon scored eight in the fourth quarter, but Mozzicato countered with ten points during the same time span.
It was the Eagles fourth win in their last five contests. The record is improving and so is the player’s comfort level on the court.
“We have a lot of new faces that are playing now, compared to last year. We lost about seven or eight seniors, so right now the biggest thing is they are starting to play together and sharing the ball,” stated Fanelli, “They’re starting to do a really good job at taking care of the little things, like playing defense and boxing out. Things like that are important.”
“We’re working harder in practice. We’ve been going at it and competing in practice, which has only helped us in the games,” added Mozzicato, who would still like to see the team get better on the defensive end of the court, “I think our defense could improve a little bit and we could have a little more ball pressure. If our defense can improve, we’ll be a tough out in the playoffs.”
Fanelli would also like to see his defense perform at a more consistent level and believes that the offensive end is still a work in progress.
“We really have to start running some good half-court sets. We really haven’t been able to run the sets that I want them to run. We’re more of less getting baskets in transition or a quick three here and there,” said the veteran coach, “I want to run some good half-court sets, set some good ball screens and set some good off-the-ball screens. We don’t want to get stalled down on the offensive end of the floor.”
The Eagles polished off last week with victories over Bristol Eastern (52-45) Thursday and Northwest Catholic (53-47) Saturday, improving their record to 7-3. The team is in the middle of a five-game road trip, which features a game at Newington this Friday at 6:45 p.m.
The Indians had a slow start to the season, but entered this week on a four-game winning streak, thanks to the steady play of Jared Simmons and Matt McKinnon. Simmons is averaging 17 points and McKinnon is averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds per game over the four wins.
The conference rivals will also face one another in the regular season finale on Tues, Feb 21 at Wethersfield High School, which also tips at 6:45 p.m.
Sports Action Around Town
WMRP Hockey Melting the Ice
The Wethersfield/Middletown/Rocky Hill/Plainville ice hockey team is off to a tremendous start, winning six of their first seven games. The latest win was a 5-1 triumph over the co-op team from Newington last Saturday. Paul Wheatley is the team’s leading scorer and added three more goals in the victory over the Indians. Zac Forrest and Tyler Piecewicz each had a goal and two assists, and goalie Stephen Vaughan stopped 17 of 18 shots.
Rocky Hill Basketball Rocks On
Entering the week, the boys and girls basketball teams at Rocky Hill are a combined 16-4. The boys have won seven of their last eight, including a 58-52 victory over Berlin last Thursday, behind 23 points from Alex Sikorski and 16 more from Will White. The girls are riding a seven-game win streak and ended the week defeating Farmington 54-48, thanks to 19 points from Nikki Lukens and 15 more from Melanie Holmes. A big challenge awaits both teams this Friday when they play and home and away against Middletown. The boys play at RHHS (6:45) and the girls travel to Middletown (5:15).
Panthers Basketball on the Prowl
The girls’ basketball team at Cromwell enters the week having won six consecutive games, including home victories over Cogincaugh (64-38) and Old Lyme (62-21) this past Friday and Saturday. The team is doing it with a balanced scoring offense. Nikki Bitinaitis, Theresa Quinn and Jenna Serrantino are all averaging double digits in the scoring column. The girls again have back-to-back home games this Friday and Saturday against Creed and Westbrook. Friday’s game tips at 7 and Saturday’s contest tips at 2 p.m.
(Cromwell's Sean Melaven defends Valley Regional's Jason O'Brien)
Noah Budzik only needed a half of basketball to make his presence felt.
The junior scored a game-high 26 points, including 17 in the second quarter, helping Cromwell defeat visiting Valley Regional 65-49 last Tuesday night at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
“Offensively we were able to get some shots for Noah and he hit some open threes. We were getting out in transition and getting him some easy looks and he did a good job in transition of getting to a comfortable spot. We try to bring him off screens to get him open and we did a good job at freeing him up. His threes gave us a little cushion going into halftime,” Cromwell head coach John Pinone said following his team’s fifth straight victory, “I think we defended much better in the second quarter. We got in the passing lanes and got a couple of steals.”
Budzik had a pair of buckets in the first quarter, including a layup in the final minute which provided the Panthers a 15-13 lead after the first eight minutes.
The energetic guard then proceeded to catch fire, scoring 17 of Cromwell’s 22 points in the second quarter. He drained five three-pointers in the decisive quarter and by halftime had outscored the road Warriors 22-19 by himself.
“Anytime that he’s open you know that ball is going in the hoop, because he’s really confident with his shot,” senior Sean Melaven said of Budzik, “If he gets fired up, we end up winning. He had a rough start against Westbrook in the first game, but every game since he’s been hot.”
Melaven is one of only three seniors on the court for Cromwell. He’s not only assumed a leadership role, but he and fellow senior Will White are the enforcers on the defensive end. The two are responsible for protecting the rim and have made the defensive frontcourt their personal playground.
The other senior is Luke Matchett, who runs the point and leads the team is assists.
The trio saw some action a season ago, but have had seen their roles drastically expand this winter.
“This year I’ve really had to step up. I had to start taking more charges and setting harder screens to get my shooters open. I really have to play defense because it comes down to the defensive end,” said Melaven, “Our coach likes to see us get into it with the other players. Not with our mouths, but with our game. He likes to see us get really fired up.”
“It all begins and ends of the defensive end,” added Pinone, “If we defend, we can compete with anyone. If we can’t defend, then we’re in trouble.”
The home team had a defensive lapse in the third quarter, allowing Valley Regional to score the first seven points following the break. The Warriors totaled 21 points in the third and senior Jordan Moran scored 11 of his team-high 18 points in the quarter.
The third quarter was also not kind to Budzik, who was injured after falling hard to the court on a layup attempt. He exited the game and did not return.
Without their leading scorer, the Panthers clamped down defensively in the final frame, limiting Valley Regional to a mere 10 points over the final eight minutes.
“It was our defensive pressure, we started stepping up on their shooters,” Melaven said about the defensive adjustments, “If we play defense like we know how and we limit our turnovers, everything will fall into place.”
With Budzik sidelined, Reese Reyes picked up the offensive slack, scoring six on his 19 in the fourth quarter. David Dewey also chipped in, scoring four of his ten points over the final eight minutes.
Valley Regional used a 7-3 run to narrow the gap to nine points early in the fourth, but Melaven responded, tallying his only bucket when he cut to the hoop and received a perfect pass from Moore.
The Moore-to-Melaven connection sparked an 11-4 Cromwell run over the final three minutes of regulation.
It’s been a remodeling year for the Panthers, who won 17 of 20 regular season games and advanced to the Class M quarterfinals a season ago. The team lost a handful on seniors to graduation, including All-State selection Peter Dewey.
The 2016/2017 season started with a loss to Westbrook, but the team has since won six in a row, including a 50-38 victory over Hale Ray last Friday night.
“We’re getting better. I think defensively we are a better team,” Pinone said about the team’s progress, “We didn’t have Will [Moore] for the first three or four games, so he gives us a little bit of height and a presence on the inside. Having him back helps us.”
“We got all of the nerves out of the way after the first game,” Melaven added, “We settled in after that. We started practicing harder and learning our plays and everything just fell into place.”
The young team is off to a positive start, but the basketball programs at Cromwell have set a high standard. A year ago, the team closed the regular season with nine straight wins and won the Shoreline Conference championship.
Melaven was a key component to the success a season ago and believes in the formula that could help the team duplicate that feat.
“We really need to limit the turnovers and step up on the offensive end if we want to be title contenders,” the senior added, “If we get our shooters open and play defense, then we win.”
“They put some pressure on our point guards and we didn’t do a really great job at handling their pressure. I’m sure we’ll see more of that coming down the road, so we’ll have to work on handling pressure and bring a second guard up to get some relief for those guys,” said Pinone, “They’re going to have to grow up quick. A lot of these guys have no varsity experience, so it’s kind of a new experience for them. We’re going in the right direction and this was a good win against a good team in the league. It’s home court and we have to protect it. We’ll take one at a time.”
Pinone’s Panthers are entering a pivotal part of their schedule and have an important home game on the horizon against East Hampton, who entered this week a perfect 7-0. The Shoreline Conference clash is Tues, Jan 17 at CHS. The game tips at 5 p.m.
Other Basketball Action Last Week
JD Monaco banked in a shot as time expired, lifting Rocky Hill boys’ basketball over Maloney 54-53 last Tuesday night. Alex Sikorski led the Terriers with 26 points in the victory over the Spartans. The Terriers ended the week with a 6-1 record after downing Bristol Central 64-59 on Thursday night. Sikorski scored 28 more points in the victory over the Rams.
The Rocky Hill girls also chalked up a victory over Maloney, winning 54-27 thanks to 17 points from Grace Fisher and 16 more from Nicole Lukens. On Thursday, the Terriers won their fourth straight, breezing by Bristol Central 67-15 behind 16 points from Lukens and 10 more from Lordina Orleans-Onyina.
Newington boys’ basketball is starting to resemble the team from a season ago, winning back-to-back games over Bristol Eastern (44-31) and Plainville (66-27). Jared Simmons combined for 32 points in the two wins and Matt McKinnon posted double-doubles in both games, combing for 22 points and 23 rebounds. The Indians entered the week having won three of their last four games.
Wethersfield girls’ basketball improved to 6-2 with a 59-48 triumph over Berlin last Thursday. Evie DeVaux had a terrific all-around game, tallying 20 points, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Nicole Gwynn added 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin