#24 Monica Dewey guards East Hampton's Meryl Cutin during Cromwell 38-32 loss to the Bellringers last week
Experience is invaluable and a young Cromwell girls basketball team ran into a veteran-laden East Hampton team last Tuesday night, falling 38-32 in the team’s home opener at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
Fouls and turnovers doomed the Panthers, who committed 19 fouls, including seven in the opening quarter.
“Some of them were fouls and some of the were questionable, but that’s the nature of the game. You have to be able to play through and adjust. We were a little late adjusting to that and then missed opportunities at the other end,” stated head coach Kelly Maher.
Following a back-and-forth first quarter, Cromwell clamped down defensively, limiting the visiting Bellringers to three points in the second quarter to take an 18-16 lead into half.
East Hampton flipped the script in the third quarter, forcing turnovers on the Panthers first five possession before spending most of the quarter at the free throw line.
“It’s just the story of the game. It seems like we had more turnovers than shot attempts tonight. Some of that is due to East Hampton but some of that is on us,” added Maher, who watched her team commit 26 turnovers, “We hurt ourselves in a lot of situations tonight, but I was happy with our sense of urgency and how they fought back and continued to play through it.”
East Hampton turned Cromwell’s miscues into points, with several coming at the foul line. The Bellringer finished 15 of 21 from the line, including a perfect 8 for 8 in the third and 12 of 14 overall in the second half.
East Hampton head coach Shaun Russell liked his team’s response in the second half, “Any time that you have experienced players that have been through the rigors of high school basketball together and have some success over time there is a certain level of comfort that you have against a team liked we played tonight. You know what you’re capable of and you know there is a trust factor with each other on the floor. As a coach, I know what I’m going to get out of them in terms of effort, enthusiasm, execution, and intensity and for the most part I got that.”
A year ago, the Bellringers were the #1 seed in the Class S tourney set to take on Old Lyme in the quarterfinals when the world changed, causing the cancellation to what could have been a state championship.
Russell welcomed back five senior starters this season and that experience showed on the court against their conference rivals, particularly when the Bellringers scored in the waning seconds in each of the first three quarters.
Hannah Barrientos buried a three to close the first quarter, Danielle Adams rebounded a miss and beat the clock with a layup to end the half, and Mya Field was fouled at the buzzer and made both free throws as the third quarter ended.
“That’s playing a lot of quarters together and having understanding of time and score situations,” added Russell, “I thought the basket at the end of the half was probably the biggest basket of the night just to get our feet back under us. They did a good job with us in the second quarter defensively. It’s not so much of an ability thing as it is the ability to calm your mind and realize the situation and be able to execute.”
Angela Mercaldi scored a game-high 12 points, ten coming after the break. Barrientos added 10, Adams 8, and Field 6.
Adela Cecunjanin was consistent all night for Cromwell, scoring a team-high 11 and hauling down seven rebounds. The sophomore forward has become a force, both on the inside and outside for Maher this season.
“She knows the game and she’s able to take what the other team gives her. It they’re going to guard her inside, she’ll go out, and she’s able to see things and get her other teammates involved. She’s grown overall in all areas of the game.”
After falling down by as many as 11 points in the fourth quarter, Cromwell made one last push with a 8-3 run. Marykate Sullivan’s three-point play and a baseline jumper from Jessica Grodzicki was followed by Monica Dewey taking a charge, giving Cromwell hope with under two minutes to play in regulation, but East Hampton made key stops on back-to-back possessions to preserve the win.
Sullivan finished with eight points and seven rebounds in defeat. She scored 16 in the team’s opener, a 51-37 victory over Haddam-Killingworth, and is one of four sophomore, along with Cecunjanin, Grodzicki, and Neveh Clark, that are getting extensive minutes.
The four are learning of the fly after being role players last season when the Panthers advanced to the Class M semifinal prior to the cancellation.
“It’s a whole new group and you’re relying of other players to make the big shots. They’re trying to figure each other out. I think every game we’re getting better at something but we just have to put it together,” stated Maher, “As time comes we’ll learn from it and get better and if we can take something away from this game, if we cut some of the turnovers down and make some layups it’s a whole different game.”
The Panthers rebounded last Thursday with a resounding 52-32 win over North Branford, evening their record at 2-2. Senior Likhita Chanda led the way with 16 points, knocking down all three of her shots from beyond the arc, and Dewey added 9 points and 5 assists.
Maher stated that because of the uniqueness and uncertainty of this season, the team is taking a ‘one game at a time’ approach, focusing on things they can control.
Russell added that the lessons of this season extends beyond the basketball court.
“The kids are not living a totally normal existence. There’s a lot of variables that are pulling at them and extra anxiety and stress that they don’t even realize. Coming into this year, some of the things that we wanted to focus on was some of the togetherness and talking about those struggles,” said Russell “Luckily for them they are all going through it together. We always try and have that culture but this year we’ve taken it to another level and focused on how are they doing, not just in basketball. It can’t only be about that, it’s got to be the other stuff. The other stuff is what you remember. You remember winning this game but what they’ll really remember is how they won it together. That’s the stuff that makes you feel good as a coach.”
East Hampton closed the week by defeating Haddam-Killingworth 37-22 on Saturday, improving their record to 4-0 entering the week.
Harrison Ranger- Cromwell (Hockey): Ranger dished out three assists in Newington/Cromwell co-ops 4-2 win over Rocky Hill co-op. The sophomore forward now has four assists for an Indians team that is 3-0-1 entering the week.
Brian Puglielli- Wethersfield (Diving): Puglielli scored a career-best for a dual meet as Wethersfield swimming and diving celebrated Senior Night with a victory over Berlin last Wednesday. The senior has been one of the stat’s top divers the past three years, including a sixth place finish at the Class M finals as a sophomore.
Sam Hedlund- Manchester (Hockey): Hedlund scored two goals and dished out two assists as the Newington co-op hockey team defeated E.O Smith last Saturday. The senior captain is part of a prolific front line for the team this season.
Josh Fontaine- Plainville (Hockey): Fountaine scored both goals, one in the first period and another in the second period, as the Rocky Hill co-op played Newington co-op tough last week. The game was tied heading into the third, before Newington scored a pair of goals to win in regulation.
Colby Quinn- Wethersfield (Hockey): Quinn netted a hat trick in a comeback win (5-4) over Tri-Town last Monday and then scored and assisted in a 3-2 win over E.O. Smith last Wednesday. The junior forward is providing additional firepower for a team that is 3-0-1 entering the week.
Middletown's Shadea Bushay inbounds as Wethersfield's Gabriella Amoddio guards baseline during the Blue Dragons 52-25 season-opening win
High school sports are back and the lady hoopsters at Middletown High School couldn’t be happier.
The Blue Dragons are equipped with a loaded lineup, which was on display during a 52-25 season-opening victory at Wethersfield last Monday night.
“The biggest thing is just playing,” Middletown head coach Robert Smernoff said following the convincing victory, “A lot of our kids play fall sports and at Middletown they got through nine games and then all the fall sports had to shut down. They’re much more appreciative of getting on the court and we told them to enjoy it every day.”
Junior Tyah Pettaway scored a game-high 15 points, all after the first quarter.
Middletown battled butterflies early on, scoring only three points over the first eight minutes of action.
“The first quarter I was kind of wondering who was on the court. Credit to [Wethersfield] they came out like gangbuster, but what we saw the last three quarters is what we’ve seen every day in practice,” added Smernoff.
Over the final three quarters, the Blue Dragons outscored the Eagles 49-13.
Pettaway and senior captain Kya Mayo took over in the second quarter, combining to score 14 points.
Mayo, who is coming back from a torn ACL, scored the final five of the second quarter when she went coast-to-coast on a layup and then nailed a straight away three in the waning seconds as Middletown closed the half on a 12-0 run.
“She was so excited to play,” stated Smernoff, who praised Mayo and fellow captain Aysia Henderson, “They’ve been as good of captains as I’ve ever had. We’ve given them so much leadership responsibilities and they’re really focused on some big goals this year.”
Following a 12-point opening quarter, Wethersfield had trouble putting the ball in the bucket.
“I think they needed to get those first game jitters out of the way. Our goal this season is to be as competitive as possible in every game,” said Wethersfield head coach Jeff Russell.
A season ago, the Eagles were prepping for a quarterfinals clash with St. Paul when the Class L tournament was canceled over COVID concerns last March.
The Eagles lost four starters and 97% of the team’s scoring output from last winter. All-conference studs Nicole Gwynn and Alice Kelly, along with sharpshooter Isabella Samse and utility player Grace Conneely all graduated, leaving a sizeable void.
Russell added, “I went into the season really excited for these kids, because they are hungry. It’s fun to be a part of that team that’s winning but sometimes you want your shot. I wanted practices to get back to teaching and skill development and the culture is there. This group is the foundation of the culture because they were the kids on the bench cheering on those players before but they were also being ask in practice to work just as hard as them.”
Gabriella Amoddio scored eight points to lead the Eagles in the opener and Vanessa Venditti came off the bench to spark a 10-0 to end the first quarter.
Venditti, who finished with five points, had several crisp passes to set up scores, including a pair Olivia Barnett who scored four of her six in the opening quarter.
Russell used nearly his entire bench in the first half, praising the team for their effort.
“Every single player came in hungry. Our practices have been competitive and these kids have been a part of winning these past couple of years,” said Russell, “We were outsized at every position on the floor tonight and we battled for rebounds, fought for loose balls, and we battled with a team that is incredibly talented.”
Wethersfield was without Alexa Grenier, who will be a major contributor when she returns, and Russell added that it will take some time for the new lineup to get comfortable, “Your shots mean a little bit more now then they did in the past. You were usually getting the fourth or fifth best defender on you and now some of our players are getting the best defender on them. They’re seeing what it’s like to make in-game adjustments and put in the work they didn’t necessarily have to do before. Every player on this group right now is fighting for the same spots. There is no line of demarcation on this group.”
Middletown cruised to victory in the second half, as juniors Jenaya Salafia and Shadae Bushay shined. Salafia scored scored 8 of her 11 and Bushay scored 5 of her 7 over the final 16 minutes.
“The first quarter did not go how we wanted but there was no panic. We knew our shots were going to start going in and we just had to pick it up on defense and they were as calm as I’ve ever seen a team. Usually that first game you’re on an emotional high or you hit that low and they just stayed nice and even-keeled the entire game,” said Smernoff.
The Blue Dragons made it two for two last week, knocking off Berlin 50-33 last Thursday behind 17 points from Bushay and 16 more from Pettaway.
Wethersfield dropped a 47-29 contest to Newington the same night.
It may be a rebuilding year in Wethersfield but Russell remains optimistic, “They’ve come in hungry and we’ve had so much fun in practice. This group really gets along well and I’m fortunate because the dynamic is awesome.”
Kilian Ranger- Cromwell (Hockey): Ranger tallied both goals as the Newington/Cromwell co-op won a 2-0 season-opener over Conard last Wednesday. The senior forward added an assist in the team’s second contest, a 1-1 tie verse Hall/Southington.
Brody Davidson- Plainville (Hockey): Davidson has become a scoring force for the Rocky Hill-Middletown-Plainville-Haddam-Killingworth Terriers, scoring a goal against Wethersfield and adding two more against Conard. The junior is one of the many young talents leading the Terriers this winter.
Lilly Ferguson- Newington (Basketball): Ferguson has started the season with a bang, scoring 19 points in back-to-back games as Newington beat both Berlin and Wethersfield. Along with scoring 38 points, the junior also hauled down 15 rebounds and had nine steals in the two conference wins.
Michael Bohlke- Newington (Swimming): Bohlke had an impressive opening meet last Wednesday, winning the 200 and 500 freestyle against Hall. The junior is fresh off an All-State selection in cross country in the fall.
Michael Schneider- Wethersfield (Hockey): Schneider was one of four Eagles to tally goals in a win over Rocky Hill co-op and then scored the team’s only goal in a 1-1 tie against SGWL last Saturday. The senior is off to a hot start for an Eagles team that is now on their own after years at a co-op team.
Almost a year ago today, Wethersfield juniors Marcus Nieves and Nick Thompson were coming off top-five finishes at the Class L state wrestling finals.
The pair of all-conference wrestlers and football players had turned their attention to what should have been an offseason preparing for a memorable senior year.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed everything.
“I remember ending the season last year and COVID hitting and thinking ‘thank God we finished’,” stated Nieves, who placed fourth overall (182 lb.) at the 2020 class finals.
Thompson placed third overall (195 lbs.) and felt like he could have done better, “I was hungry to get back to where I was and higher, so I was already looking forward to the next football season and wrestling season.”
What transpired over the next 12 months has been crushing for friends that have been competing together for nearly a decade.
Following the cancellation of spring sports, things were looking positive heading into the summer months. The COVID numbers in Connecticut were some of the lowest in the country and plans were being made to have a full slate of fall athletics.
Unfortunately for Nieves and Thompson, both football and wrestling were then categorized as ‘high risk’ by the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Athletics), which led to a ping-pong of indecisions between the CIAC and the state’s Departments of Health.
First was a delay on team conditioning in July. This was followed by a set of guidelines, detailing how teams could return to practice safely with the use of social distancing, cohorts, and masks.
“I had no problem with it as long as I was going to get to play,” recalled Nieves, “By August we expected to have a season and in September they were telling us we would have a season, and then two week later they were telling us we weren’t going to have a season. To swing our moods like that, we all felt devastated. They played with our emotions.”
Thompson added, “I was still hoping we could have a wrestling season but then that just went downhill.”
The full contact sports they excelled in had been reduced to conditioning and non-contact drills.
Throughout it all the two have maintained a positive attitude and have leaned on each other for support.
“We’ve known each other since Mighty Mites and that bond is never going to be broken,” Thompson said of the relationship.
Nieves added that the longtime teammates make each other better, in and out of competition, “He’s basically a brother so we’re always on each other and trying to push each other. During wrestling practice we are spaced out doing wall stuff and we’ll push each other to see how fast we can go and how many reps we can do. Within the team we’re trying to beat each other. It gives me a reason to get stronger.”
Both are known for their power and explosion, both on the football field and wrestling mat, so naturally they used the extended offseason to add more strength through increased lifting.
“The only reason I was lifting was for football and wrestling and to have the hope taken away was bad, but it got me into the perspective that I can still lift to get stronger and I can still have that conditioning so that if I get a chance I’ll be ready,” said Nieves.
Thompson added, “We’re two competitive guys so if we push each other.”
Both are from Hartford and found a second home in Wethersfield, forming a friendship on and off the field.
“I’ve been going to school in Wethersfield since kindergarten so I pretty much grew up here. We’ve been with the same group of people through elementary school,” recalled Nieves, “It was cool knowing I had friends even though I lived in a different town.”
“I’m very grateful to be able to go here. All my friends are here and everyone has supported me,” stated Thompson, who also credited his mom with helping him navigate through the troubling times, ”She has helped me keep my head up about it. I didn’t know if I wanted to wrestle because I didn’t want the same thing to happen that happened in football, but she told me to sign up and see what happens.”
Only having conditioning and strength training during the wrestling season has been difficult but the hardest pill to swallow was not having a real football season.
Both earned all-conference on the gridiron in the fall of 2019, leading an incredible defensive unit that shutout four opponents and held three others to 10 points or fewer as the Eagles earned a spot in the postseason.
WHS head football coach Matt McKinnon praised the two for their efforts a season ago, as well as their resiliency and leadership during months since, “Marcus and Nick lead by example with all aspects of life. They took charge of our team right after our playoff game last December 2019. They were wrestling and still coming to workouts to show the team they were all in. We got hit with a lot of adversity over the past year, and these two kept the team together mentally and virtually over the quarantine period last spring. Over the summer they did not miss a workout and pushed their teammates to the limit. They are the type of players a coaching staff dreams of, preaching the program values and holding others accountable. This includes in the weight room and in the classroom."
McKinnon, along with head wrestling coach Jim Arnold, helped the seniors keep a proper perspective.
“Coach McKinnon always has the right words. He makes us think we could do anything, I’m really grateful for that,” said Thompson, “Coach Arnold is always in our corner, mentally and physically. He’s talks us through stuff.”
“Our coaches have been great though the whole thing. They have us think about the positive side and not on the negative,” added Nieves, “[Coach Arnold] said ‘if wrestling doesn’t happen and we do all this conditioning, what’s the worst that it could do? You’re going to get stronger.’ That’s really helped.”
Optimism for a possible spring football season or wrestling season may be slim, but the glimmer of hope remains after the NHFS changed course last week by eliminating the risk categorization given to each sport.
“Maybe we could fit three or four games for football or maybe have half a season for wrestling,” said Nieves.
Thompson added that he hopes the next generation of Eagles doesn’t have to experience the same fate, “If we get something now it would be a blessing but I just hope that the younger guys are able to have an opportunity.”
Both have already started making plans after graduation and because of the experience of the past year, the two have some advice for the future athletes at WHS.
‘Keep your mind in check. Make sure you’re mentally good as well as physically. In high school things get tough, especially the times we’re in now. We don’t know when our last day might be. Go all out every practice, in the weight room, and every game because like us we didn’t know the loss to New Canaan would be our last game. You can’t look forward because it can get taken away. Just make the most of everything,” stated Nieves.
Thompson added, “If you’re going to do a sport like football or wrestling stay in the weight room, stay positive, and keep your grades up.”
Newington senior Madison Massaro-Cook with parents Jennifer Massarro-Cook and Ronald Cook, along with brother John Massaro, as she signs letter of intent to play college volleyball at CCSU
Newington’s all-state volleyball senior Madison Massaro-Cook will continue her athletic and academic journey at Central Connecticut State University next fall.
Massaro-Cook made it official in November, electing to stay close to home and compete at a Division I level, “It was a welcoming and friendly environment from the start. The way the coaching staff and the head of the departments greeted me during my visit was phenomenal. It felt like a family, and that is what attracted me so much.”
The senior spiker will graduate this spring, leaving NHS as one of the most productive players in the program’s history. She played four years at a varsity level, helping the team win 51 matches during her tenure, leading the team in kills in each of the last three seasons, including 127 this past fall during a shortened 11-game schedule, averaging a career high 3.3 kills per set. She also led the team in aces during her junior and senior seasons.
Chris Wanner, who coached Massaro-Cook her freshman through junior seasons at NHS, said, “What made Maddie a good player was her athleticism, love of the game, and sheer determination. The minute she walked in the gym her freshman year, she started imagining herself as a great player and then she did what needed to be done to excel. She learned and she practiced. Maddie is coachable and she consistently worked on her physical skills and her mental skills to improve her performance.”
Along with 2020’s all-state recognition, she was also a three-time all-conference selection. Off the court, she’s an all-conference golfer, finishing fifth overall on the links as a sophomore in 2019 at the CCC championships.
“Leaving NHS, I will miss the strong relationships and connections I have developed with the coaching staff and teachers. Along with my closest friends,” stated Massaro-Cook, who also helped raise awareness for mental health as a member of Stop the Stigma Club at Newington High, “I will miss all of their support, however I am ready to start the next chapter!”
At CCSU, she will major in Biomolecular Science as she joins a Blue Devil squad that is consistently in the Northeast Conference Tournament and have played in the NEC championship game in two of the last three competitive seasons.
“I am beyond excited to compete at the next level. I want to grow my skills and develop into a stronger and more assertive player, and I think I can do that at the next level. I cannot wait to play with an extreme level of intensity, which will push me to be even better.”
Wethersfield senior Charlie Hayes with parents Steven and Melissa Hayes, along with WHS soccer coach Rob Jachym. Hayes will play college soccer at Rivier College in New Hampshire
Charlie Hayes, a senior at Wethersfield High School, has already overcome more obstacles than many people will in a lifetime.
Hayes’ next challenge will be playing college soccer at Rivier College after he was accepted into the New Hampshire school last month.
“The fact that it is a Catholic University with a great Criminal Justice program,” Hayes said of what enticed him about the Nashua-based college.
Prior to entering the high school, collegiate athletics seemed like only a dream as Hayes was battling for his life after being diagnosed with Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis, which is a rare disease that causes hyperinflammation and affects the functioning of your immune system.
“I was diagnosed with HLH and was given 20% chance of surviving. Having a goal of getting back on that field and having faith kept me going,” stated Hayes, “So I felt like I was just drawn to Rivier. Then I met coach [Hayden] Barbosa and just knew it was the perfect fit.”
Hayes sharpened his soccer skills at Wethersfield High, playing all four years and becoming a force for the Eagles, showcasing his ability on and off the field by making the All-Academic team during both his junior and senior seasons.
Last year he was the team’s leading scorer during the Eagles undefeated season, which culminated with a conference crown. Hayes finished with 11 goals and dished out 4 assists over twelve games.
Hayes noted that WHS head coach Rob Jachym was a big influence on him, “I will miss coach Rob’s practices. He had the best practices. He always made it competitive and fun. He is the type of coach you just want to leave it all on the field for.”
Over the last four years, he also played basketball and baseball and was very active outside of school, particularly in the local community. He was a volunteer and patient ambassador for Connecticut Children's Medical Center where he has been an integral part of their annual holiday toy drive over the past several years and helped with contributions towards and raising awareness around HLH.
In 2016, Hayes’ story of his own battle with HLH inspired the community. Wethersfield students, led by then-senior and all-state goalie Jimmy Slayton, started selling TEAM Charlie t-shirts to help raise money for the cause.
Five years later, Hayes is healthy and ready to attack the next phase of his life thanks to the support of his friends and family.
“Growing up I always had my dad by my side getting the training I needed. We were always talking about how hard you have to work to get there but when you do it’s the best feeling,” recalled Hayes, “[My dad] was an alum of Franklin Pierce University and it makes me so happy that I can not only follow in his footsteps but create my own path.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin