Make room for another championship banner inside Jake Salafia Gymnasium at Cromwell High School.
The latest drapery is courtesy of the boys’ basketball team, who shot lights out from the field and swarmed defensively in the second half to defeat Wamogo 58-40, capturing the Division V state title at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 17.
Senior Noah Budzik scored a game-high 22 points and sophomore Gabe Charleston added 10 points, eight rebounds, and a pair of blocks in the championship triumph.
The win was the ultimate payoff after months of endless preparation and conditioning following last season’s second round exit from the Class M tournament.
“I thought we could be a very good team,” recalled head coach John Pinone, “We had the five seniors coming back and I knew Nick Wright was going to be a good player. I think it took a while but as the season went along they got better and better.”
For Budzik, David Dewey, Reese Reyes, Austin Roy, and Brendan Stafstrom this winter marked their final chance to fulfil a goal the group had set eight years ago.
And when it counted most, the five seniors delivered.
“We’ve been friends since middle school and it’s been a dream of ours to play here,” Dewey said while standing on the Mohegan Sun Arena floor following the title.
“We are very close. We’ve been together since fifth grade with the Rebels and this has always been the one goal that’s been in our minds since we started,” added Reyes.
Dewey was the team’s point man, doing all the little things and sacrificing his individual stats for the betterment of the team.
“You love that in a point guard,” Pinone said of his court general, “People don’t know that he was injured the whole year. He had bad ribs and was in a lot of pain for a lot of games but he never complained. A lot of times he’d be playing the team’s best offensive players. Him and Reese as captains were just tough kids that were consistently relentless in getting after it, especially on the defensive end.”
Between the boys and girls basketball programs at Cromwell, the school has built a rock solid reputation on the hardwood.
The girls, led by head coach Kelly Maher, are consistent championship contenders, having brought home titles and banners in 2013 and 2016.
Pinone’s boys are always in the mix and also won the title in 2009.
This year’s team won six of their first nine before reeling off 11 straight wins to end the regular season 17-3.
“I think the question mark for me was how fast Gabe was going to come along only being a sophomore and not really having played any varsity minutes as a freshman,” Pinone said of the 6’4” Charleston, who solidified the middle for an undersized unit, “I think he played well down the stretch and in the tournament. He’s been inconsistent at times, even in the championship game, and I think he’d be the first person to tell you that but he’s going to be a very good.”
Charleston’s growth and the team’s hardnosed defense continued their winning ways in the postseason as the Panthers earned a spot in the Shoreline Conference Championship game. However in the conference title contest, the Bellringers of East Hampton delivered the Panthers their first loss since mid-January when Cromwell lost by 15 at East Hampton.
“We just didn’t execute the way we needed to execute but we were right there. We lost by four, but twice we cut it to two. We didn’t play well enough to win that game,” Pinone said of the 58-54 loss on March 3, “Obviously they were a very good team but I think we continued to get better after that game and I thought we even got better as the tournament went along.”
After the state tournament brackets were revealed it look as if the #3 seed Panthers may be destined for a third meeting with the top-seeded and undefeated Bellringers for a shot at the title because the teams were on opposite sides of the bracket.
Following a bye in the first round, Cromwell breezed by Bolton 80-66 in the second round thanks to 16 points, five assists, and four rebound from Dewey.
In the quarterfinals the Panthers overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to edge Innovation 57-55. Reyes led the way with 15 points and eight rebounds.
The quarterfinals win set the Panthers up to avenge another loss from earlier in the season.
“After we beat Innovation we were focused on Canton because they had beaten us the first time at their place,” said Pinone, referring to a 53-39 defeat on Dec 28.
Motivated by the earlier loss and a spot in the championship game, Cromwell jumped out to an early lead and exerted their will on the Warriors from Canton, winning 65-42 at Maloney High School. Budzik finished with a game-high 19 and was one of four Panthers to score in double figures.
“I think the Canton win gave us a huge amount of confidence to play with a swagger and to play with an edge. We got after them defensively, we were all in,” added Pinone, “Everybody knew the scouting report and what we were trying to do, they knew what their role was in that game. Canton was a much bigger team and much more physical but I think we just attacked them defensively and we took it to them.”
The same night Cromwell earned a trip to Mohegan they also learned that the third meeting with East Hampton would not come to fruition because #4 seed Wamogo upset East Hampton, 64-57, in their semifinal bout.
“We really didn’t talk about that too much because it never ended up happening,” Pinone said of the potential rematch with East Hampton, “We were really focused on just getting past Canton and giving ourselves a shot to get to the finals.”
Throughout their journey the Panthers became known for their resolve, overcoming size deficiencies and second half deficits because of their relentless work on the defensive end and their energy late in games.
This was again on full display in the title game after Wamogo used a strong second quarter to take a two-point lead into the halftime locker room.
“I think it all comes down to that our conditioning is excellent. We take a lot of pride in our conditioning and we don’t wear out. I think we did a great job in the last two games because physically we are in better shape. We played eight guys in the championship game and we needed to play them because we had three guys with two fouls in the second quarter. Our bench did a good job at keeping us in the game,” stated Pinone, “We were fortunate to be down only two at the half. With nine turnovers to only be down two at the half we were in pretty good position. We tried to be more patient on offense in the second half, we told them that we’ve got to get a shot every possession and we did a much better job at that. I think the other adjustment was trying to get Gabe and Nick more involved, but obviously it was at the defensive end. It always starts and ends with us on the defensive end.”
The small deficit was nothing new to the senior leaders, who had been in this spot several times before and knew they had 16 more minutes to take control of the game and ultimately their championship fate.
“We just had to calm down. We were rushing of offense and had some bad turnovers. We had to D up and slow the game down on offense,” said Dewey, “I thought if we ran our offense we could get open shots. They couldn’t keep up with us in the second half.”
“Coach told us just to keep playing. We had to keep the intensity up and stop fouling and just play our game,” added Reyes.
Budzik canned a three-pointer on the first possession of the third quarter and scored five points during a 9-0 Panthers run to start the second half.
The Litchfield-based Warriors fought their way back but Cromwell counterpunched every time, coming up with several second-chance points late in the third, including a rebound put back by Charleston to beat the buzzer which gave the Panthers a four point advantage headed to the fourth.
“I think it took a lot of the will out of them at that point,” Pinone said of Charleston’s buzzer beater, “We got some layups and some easy buckets. As the game went on they tried to extend their pressure a bit and we got to the rim a lot easier. I also think we did a good job on the offensive glass.”
Midway through the final frame, Roy scored on back-to-back possessions to put the game on ice. The second bucket was an uncontested breakaway layup following a terrific outlet pass from junior J.J. Tracey-Gavin.
Following the layup Roy pointed his figure towards the sky to indicate Cromwell was now #1.
“At that point it was over. The whole game we were just non-stop and we knew they were going to crack sooner or later,” said Roy, who also grabbed four rebounds.
All that was left was the celebration.
The season ended with Cromwell playing one of their best eight minute stretches of the season, connecting on six of nine shots and outscoring Wamogo 18-4 in the fourth.
“We came in knowing that if we bring energy, bring our defense and play our game that nobody is going to beat us. We’ve really got confidence and trust in each other and we came out and played hard and that’s why we won today,” said Dewey.
“This was the ultimate goal. This is what we have always worked for,” added Reyes.
When the five seniors graduate in May they will take nearly 40 points per game production with them, leaving a large void for next season.
Wright (9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game) and Charleston (7.8 and 5.4) will be back along the front line. Tracey-Gavin will assume the leadership role in the backcourt after coming off the bench to spell Dewey this season, averaging 4.9 points and 3.2 assist per game.
Pinone said the offseason training for the returning players will start immediately.
But for the seniors the celebration continues and 2017-2018 championship banner will be a constant reminder of the legacy they left on the courts in Cromwell.
“It’s unbelievable,” Roy said while reflecting on the season, “The group of guys on this team is something that I’ll never forget my entire life.”
Cromwell's Gabe Charleston scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and blocked two shots in the title game
Ryan Robinson looks on during Rocky Hill's state championship game at Mohegan Sun
The story of the 2017-2018 boys basketball team at Rocky Hill reads like a Hollywood script.
A small town team experiences the trials and tribulations of an up and down regular season only to form a stronger bond before the tournament starts, allowing them to make an improbable championship run.
It sounds make believe--- but it really happened.
Head coach Josh Dinerman and his Terriers wrote their own script and even though it didn’t have a fairytale ending, it’s a tale that the coaches and players will one day tell their grandchildren.
“We have a team that just came together and said 'we’re going to do this, we’re going to Mohegan’,” the proud coach said after advancing to the title game.
Opening Act: The Struggle
The regular season had some peaks, including a three game winning streak in mid-January, but the valleys were very low. The final month saw the Terriers lose seven of their final eight games, including a six-game losing skid. The regular season ended with a listless 59-40 loss to Newington, which Dinerman called “the low point of the year.”
Despite the struggles and not qualifying for the CCC tourney, the team earned a spot in the Division IV tournament as the #26 seed.
Act Two: The Grind
In hindsight the late-season woes and missing the conference tourney may have been a blessing in disguise.
“We had two weeks of practice, which is enormous. Even when we start the season, because of scrimmages, we don’t get two weeks of practice. Now when you have everything installed you get two weeks and can make minor tweaks. You can take that time and break down parts of the game and put it all together. Day after day we just kept improving and I turned to the coaches and said ‘they get it’. It just clicked,” recalled Dinerman, “You could just tell that they were dying to get out there after like 10 days of practice. They just wanted to go play.”
Act Three: The Resurgence
The two weeks of regrouping started a run that would captivate the local community.
“We knew we could be set up for a nice run, but you’ve got to win the first one and put good practices together,” stated Dinerman.
First they traveled to Plainfield in the opening round and knocked off a 15-win Plainfield team, 62-50. The opening round road win restored the team’s belief.
“It wasn’t the season that we wanted but we knew that we had to fight. We had to keep working and we never gave up. Once we got the first victory in the tournament we knew what to do,” senior Ryan Robinson said of the team’s mental and physical turnaround.
In the second round the Terriers knocked off 14-win Amistad, 64-53, in New Haven. Seniors Will White and Andrew DiMatteo each scored 16 points in the victory.
Next was a thrilling 70-67 overtime quarterfinals victory over a 19-win, 2-seed St. Bernard in Montville. The Terriers trailed by 13 points heading into the fourth quarter but rallied to force overtime and outlast the Saints in their own building. DiMatteo and fellow senior Jordan DelMastro each scored 15 in the quarterfinals victory.
Act Four: The Climax
The come-from-behind victory sent the streaking Terriers to the semifinals where they faced a 20-win Wilcox Tech team at Wilby High School for a spot in the Division IV finals.
“On the bus ride to every state game so far I’m thinking ‘ok this could be our last game so just leave it all out there’,’” Robinson said of his mindset before the semifinal bout.
Robinson and his team left everything they had on the floor and it was clear from start to finish that the Terriers’ train could not be derailed.
Rocky Hill scored the game’s first nine points and led 17-4 after the first quarter. The lead ballooned to many as 20 points in the first half, en route to a 66-51 victory last Wednesday night.
“Coming into this game we had won three straight and we were feeling confident. It’s just a hunger, it’s a mindset,” added Robinson, who scored a team-high 16 points in the semifinal victory, “It's do-or-die. You have to give it your all and I’m playing like it's my last game ever.”
Despite the lopsided score the resiliency of the team shined once again when Wilcox Tech went on a 7-point run in the third quarter, which narrowed the Terriers lead to eight.
“We’re 100% battle tested. They went on a run and our kids are running off the court during the timeout clapping because they know we’re going to respond,” said Dinerman, “They have that mentality like nothing can stop us right now and they’re just clicking. I just love how much heart they have and how much pride they have. The chemistry is just awesome.”
Following the time out, DelMastro halted the opponents run by canning a three-pointer after receiving a perfect pass from White.
DelMastro’s three ended any doubt and cemented a spot in the championship game.
The team that easily eliminated Wilcox Tech in the semifinals hardly resembled the team that was struggling to find an identity in the season-finale against Newington.
“We’re different. Against Newington we had already gotten into states and we thought we were so good, but you can’t play that way,” recalled Robinson, “In the tournament we knew it was one and done, so we just came out and kept fighting. We’ve played all these different types of games, so we’re used to it. Coach gets us prepared and the main thing that he wants us to do is not take any plays off all game and that’s what we’re doing.”
“I tell my guys that my job is to not get outworked and to be more prepared than the other coach every single game and I tell them that’s what I’m going to do for them. The guys have just laid their hearts out there and it’s been complete focus,” added Dinerman, “We’ve been prepping so hard on the reports and the game plans and these guys have been going out and implementing it. It’s been spectacular.”
The Final Act: Bitter Sweet End
By the time Rocky Hill reached the Mohegan Sun Arena for their championships tilt they had logged over 211 total miles on the bus in five tournament road trips.
All of those miles and the depth of Kolbe Cathedral took its toll as the Terriers fell to the Bridgeport-based Cougars, 55-40, on Sunday night.
Rocky Hill went toe-to-toe with the eventual state champions for the first three quarters, but got outscored 20-10 over the final eight minutes.
DelMastro finished with a team-high 17 points, 13 coming in the second half, and DiMatteo added 11 in defeat.
It wasn’t a storybook ending, but the local Road Dawgs went on one heck of a ride.
“It was our senior leadership. This senior class has been through a lot. Making it through this program for four year is very challenging. It’s a grind and it takes constant effort,” Dinerman said of his eight departing seniors.
“We started 8-12 and then put together four road wins over four teams seeded in the top ten to get to Mohegan. That’s a tremendous refocus and to make a run like this is special.”
(Jimmy Sullivan slams home two of his team-high 12 points)
It’s safe to say that there’s no love loss between the athletic programs at Wethersfield and Glastonbury.
The bitter rivals took center stage in the Division II boys’ basketball quarterfinals last Monday night and the visiting Tomahawks came away with a rugged 62-54 victory inside an energized and full house at WHS.
Glastonbury used a 14-2 run, which started late in the third quarter and extended until early into the fourth, to build a 15-point lead before holding off a late charge by the Eagles.
“In a game like this against a well-coached team you can’t make many mistakes and tonight we did,” said Wethersfield head coach Brian Fanelli, “Defensively at times we weren’t in the right position and we would rotate late. That was part of our problem. The other problem was that we couldn’t make a basket for about a five minute stretch.”
With the game deadlocked at 22 at half, Glastonbury’s Freddie Thomas came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the third quarter. The junior went on his own 7-0 run early in the quarter and connected on five shots from beyond the arc in the game.
Thomas and fellow junior Jonathan Shae each scored 19 for the Tomahawks, who also defeated the Eagles in their lone regular season matchup, 67-56, back on Feb 10.
Senior Jimmy Sullivan led the Eagles with 12 points, ten coming over the first two quarters. He ignited a 6-2 run late in the first half with an emphatic slam dunk, which temporarily energized the home crowd.
Mike Mozzicato and Connor Pace each chipped in with 11 points in the loss.
It was the final game at Wethersfield for Mozzicato, who wrapped up his high school career with his most productive season to date. His skillset and size will translate well to the collegiate ranks.
Pace is a sophomore, who excels in the paint both offensively and defensively, and will be a force to reckon with over the next couple of seasons.
“He’s probably one of the smartest kids on the team. He takes a concept and picks it up in about ten seconds and then he applies it,” Fanelli said of Pace, “He’s a pretty special kid.”
Trailing 50-35 early in the fourth, Fanelli utilized a full court press on defense and the team made one last surge to save their season. The Eagles forced a handful of turnover, reeling off 19 of the next 26 points to narrow the gap to three with just over a minute left in regulation.
“We were trying to change the tempo and create some turnovers and it did exactly what we wanted it to do. We didn’t have the legs to do it the whole game, but we thought it was a good time to do it and it actually got us back in the game,” said the veteran coach.
Junior Derek Tenney was an all-around dynamo during the late rally, scoring eight of his ten points, including a perfect six of six from the foul line.
“He does a good job at times taking over and he does the little things,” Fanelli said of Tenney, “He attacked the basket and he played tough defense on their best player.”
Ultimately the comeback fell short once the Eagles were forced to foul and the Tomahawks made five of six free throws to seal the game.
It ended a season which saw the Eagles win 16 of 20 regular season games, earning them a bye in the first round of the tournament before downing Bridgeport Central 68-64 in round two.
Glastonbury’s win advanced them to the semifinals where they were eliminated by Immaculate, who went on to win the Division II state championship, defeating Amity 56-34 last Saturday at Mohegan.
Next winter Tenney and Pace will head another solid Eagles team led by Fanelli, but the coach has been mentoring the current group of seniors since middle school and said the group will be missed.
“They got our first division title, which we’ve never done before and they made it to the quarterfinals for a home game. It was right there, they couldn’t have asked for any better.”
Not even a five minute scoring drought in the second quarter could prevent the Rocky Hill girls’ basketball team from advancing to the semifinal round for the first time in the program’s history.
The resilient Terriers shook off the shaky quarter and defeated Stonington, 55-42, in quarterfinals of the Class M tournament last Monday night at RHHS.
“Every second quarter all year,” Rocky Hill coach Allyson Smith-Toulouse joked about the team’s second quarter struggles this season, “Defense wasn’t the issue. We got up early and we felt confident, which is great, but I thought we got a little lazy with our passes and Stonington is such an aggressive team on that end of the floor. I think we just had to readjust and slow it down and take care of the ball.”
Junior Nikki Lukens scored the game’s first four points and totaled eight points in the first quarter, providing the home Terriers a 16-9 lead after the first eight minutes.
Then the visiting Bears woke up from their hibernation to start the second quarter as Stonington’s Kate Hall led an 8-0 run, scoring the first five points in the frame, and the Terriers were held without a point until the 2:07 mark of the quarter.
“She told us just to stay strong,” Lukens said about her coach’s message during a timeout in the second quarter, “We just had to stay composed. They got that lead because we turned the ball over and we just had to pass the ball around and get open shots.”
Lukens broke the scoring slump with a lefty hook off glass and added another layup late in the half following an offensive rebound and dish from Samantha Steinman. The bucket gave the Terriers a 22-21 lead at intermission.
Kate Johnson scored to start the second half, briefly regaining the lead for Stonington, but a baseline jumper from Steinman started an eight-point run and the home team would not trail the rest of the way.
“We wanted to come out really strong. The beginning of the third quarter is the most important and it’s where we really extended our lead,” added Lukens, who relished the historic victory with her senior teammates, “We’ve been together for three years and I think we have really good chemistry and it’s really grown this year. This was their last possible home game and it meant a lot to the seniors.”
Lukens finished with a game-high 22 points and Hall had a team-high 16 points for Stonington.
The productive guards traded shot for shot during a wildly entertaining second half and Smith-Toulouse subbed in sophomore Corrin Stabile, providing Lukens a breather on the defensive end.
“Hall is great player. She’s such an explosive scorer that we wanted to try and slow her down with Nikki, because Nikki and is 5’9” and she’s always our dynamic defender, but I knew it wasn’t sustainable for 32 minutes and Corrin is such a good on-ball defender. Nikki was being asked to do a lot like she always is on the offensive end, so we tried to give her a break.”
Rocky Hill’s adaptable and athletic lineup allowed Smith-Toulouse to switch between the team’s harassing man-to-man press and a zone defense, which stymied the Bears offense for long stretches Monday night.
The fifth-year head coach also tried to control the paint offensively when Stonington switched up their defensive strategy.
“I love Stonington. I think they’re a great team and they’re very well coached. We were ready for some of the staples that they have and we were prepared. They’re a 32 minute team man-to-man team but they went zone so they opened up the middle for us a lot and we just tried to exploit it.”
Seniors Grace Moore and Grace Fisher were the benefactors. Moore finished with 10 points, including six in the final quarter, and Fisher added nine.
As she has done all season, Moore gave the team a ton of energy off the bench and once again came up big in the clutch.
Clinging to a five-point lead in the fourth quarter, Moore grabbed an offensive rebound following a missed free throw and scored, giving the Terriers a 49-42 with just over a minute to play in regulation.
“She’s had a remarkable postseason. She’s been great all year and what you saw tonight has been the entire postseason for her. To have that type of athletic IQ on the floor is priceless,” Smith-Toulouse said of Moore, who also drew a charge on the defensive end as soon as she checked in the game in the first quarter, “I tell her all the time that I think she’s one of the best sixth men in the state. As a kid that’s competitive that’s kind of hard to hear sometimes but what she brings to the table night in and night out is irreplaceable.”
Senior Lizzy Denardo and sophomore Aleksa Peterson each chipped in with six points apiece in the landmark victory.
Rocky Hill had reached the quarterfinals because of a pair of home wins over East Catholic (54-27) and Seymour (62-44) in the first two rounds of Class M play.
The win over Seymour looked as if it would be the final home game of the season for the sixth-seeded Terriers, but the team received surprising news following the victory.
“We won and my trainer told me in my ear that St. Paul lost,” Smith-Toulouse recalled when hearing that #14 Stonington had upset #3 St. Paul, “I brought the players all back and told them that we have one more home game and they went bananas.”
Stonington’s second-round upset allowed the Terriers to create history inside the gym where the team’s five seniors have made their home for the past four seasons. The proud coach couldn’t have asked for a better finish at home for Steinman, Moore, Fisher, Denardo, and Kiana Lebron-Rivera.
“This is how you do it. This is how you end a career on the floor that you’ve helped build. These seniors have built a foundation of success here for this program and to have your last possible game at home and to win it and advance the semifinals for the first time in school history, I couldn’t imagine anything better for them.”
The team almost surpassed another milestone last Friday night, but fell to #2 East Haven, 56-52, in the semifinal round. A win would have propelled the Terriers into the Class M title game at Mohegan Sun and Rocky Hill led for a majority of the game until a late rally by East Haven earned them a spot in the championship game and ended the high school careers for the handful of unforgettable seniors at Rocky Hill.
In defeat, Lukens scored 19 points more points and in the third quarter surpassed the 1000-point mark for her high school career.
The prolific scorer is just getting started and will be back on the court next winter as the Terriers aim to make their sixth straight tournament appearance under Smith-Toulouse.
The history-making girls weren’t the only ones at the school making headlines on basketball courts. The boys team finished an up-and-down regular season at 8-12, earned the #26-seed in Division IV, but turned into a pack of ravaging road dawgs in the postseason.
In the opening round they upset #7 Plainfield, 62-50, behind 15 points from Will White and 14 more from Riley Donovan. Then they muscle their way into New Haven and knocked off #10 Amistad, 64-53, in round two last Friday night, thanks to 16 points apiece from White and Andrew DiMatteo.
All in all it’s been a very interesting and successful season on the local courts.
Senior #23 Samantha Steinman guards the inbounds with sophomore #25 Aleksa Peterson
Ice Hockey Tournament Action
Newington co-op defeated Housatonic/NW/Wamogo 3-2 in overtime to notch a thrilling home victory the opening round of the Division III tournament. Matt Lavoie scored the game-winning goal in the extra session, while Kyle Bucher and Ethan Ranger netted goals in regulation.
The #8 Indians fell to top-seed Staples 7-3 in the second round, marking the end of a 14-8 season.
Co-op Wethersfield/Middletown/Rocky Hill/Plainville also advanced to the second round in Division III play, easily defeating Brookfield/Bethel/Danbury 7-2. Junior Ben Mroczka tallied a hat trick and freshman Aaron Cholewa added another goal and two assists.
The #7 Eagles were edged by second-seed Enfield/East Granby/Stafford 2-1 in the second round, despite another goal from Cholewa and 26 saves from junior goaltender Jake Peckrul.
(Sophomore Alice Kelly was a defensive standout and scored 13 points in the Eagles 56-43 tourney victory over Lyman Hall)
Wethersfield girls’ basketball head coach Jeff Russell loves an up-tempo attack and his fast and furious style was on full display during the Eagles 56-43 victory over Lyman Hall in the opening round of the Class L tournament last Tuesday night.
“I thought our players really fought and turned it up another notch tonight. They competed and mentally stayed focused,” said the second-year coach.
Playing in front of their home crowd the Eagles took a while to settle in, but their relentless defensive press eventually wore down the traveling Trojans from Wallingford.
“I think there were some nerves early on but our mantra all year has been ‘how can we affect the game when we’re not making shots’. Even though our shots really weren’t dropping there’s a lot of ways that we can score and create points. You saw our defense pick up, which is always right in time when the other team might be getting comfortable with the pressure.”
Trailing 19-14 early in the second quarter the Eagles began to take flight, finishing the half on a 13-3 run. The scoring spurt featured several buckets in transition following Lyman Hall mishaps.
“I think it was our defense,” Wethersfield sophomore Nicole Gwynn said about the change in momentum, “When we pressed they couldn’t get by us. It allows us to do certain things that we want on offense.”
Gwynn finished with a game-high 14 points, including six the pivotal second quarter. She was also the point person for the Eagles full court press, using her long frame and quick hands to create turnovers in the backcourt.
“She’s become a player that can affect the game without the ball. She jumps out at you as an athlete, but she wasn’t a great defender last year. She gambled a little bit too much but now she’ll get in front of someone and she’s an imposing kid,” Russell said of the Gwynn’s development, “She’s not built like most sophomores and she’s the second biggest person on the team, but we can put her on anyone and she’ll guard the other team’s point guard or their best shooter. She’s really bought into our defense this year and she’s realized what that could create offensively for her.”
“I feel like I matured. I’m not doing stuff that I did last year and I’m more confident this year,” added Gwynn, who puts in extra work after games and practices working tirelessly with her father John Gwynn.
Leading 27-22 at the break, fellow starting sophomores Alice Kelly and Isabella Samse further increased the home team’s lead in the second half.
Kelly finished with 13 points and dominated the middle of the paint defensively from start to finish. Samse helped finished off the tourney victory, scoring five of her 10 points in the final quarter.
“That’s a really impressive thing for a sophomore,” Russell said about the trio’s noticeable confidence on the court, “They love basketball and when we’d do stuff in the offseason like weight lift they would be in the gym shooting afterwards on their own. They’re basketball kids. Anytime a door is open they look for a way to get in and play basketball.”
Gwynn and Kelly received significant minutes on varsity as freshmen, but Samse played exclusively on JV last winter yet is thriving in her new role as the team’s energizer.
“Her confidence grew this year and she’s realized her abilities,” Russell said of Samse, who knocked down a pair of threes Tuesday night, “She’s a basketball junkie and she doesn’t get tired. She runs cross country in the fall and track in the spring. The style we play really fits her style.”
Samse’s non-stop motor fuels the Eagles high-octane machine, which is ideal for Russell who believes that speed kills no matter what sport he’s coaching.
Prior to taking over the girls basketball program at Wethersfield he was the offensive coordinator for the school’s football team and implemented a no-huddle, spread offense which terrorized opponents for years.
It’s an approach that is only doable with the proper conditioning.
“We practice like it’s a game and we have the mentality that you get a drink when you need one. Our transition times in practice and in between drills are very minimal and we’re constantly moving. When we have a two and a half hour practice, it’s two and a half hours of movement.”
Since taking over last winter Russell has leaned on his senior leaders to help implement his vision.
Senior Cheyenne-Mone Smith has been one of those who have thrived within Russell’s system and she sparked the first-half turnaround with layup, finishing with four of her seven points in the second quarter.
Smith also blocked three shots and had one of the most memorable plays of the night when she grabbed an offensive rebound while falling out of bounds and dished it to Malena Mandile for a layup, putting the Eagles up 33-24 midway through the third quarter.
“We’re all pretty fast and quick, so I think it fits our abilities and it’s pretty natural for us. I love to motivate the team and push them to get better,” Smith said about her mindset prior to the tourney game, “I just want to make it the best game because I don’t know when it’s going to be the last game. You just have to play hard and play to win.”
Senior Juliana Mandile added eight points, including six in the final frame.
“My seniors have been great because they are great communicators and they’ll let me know if their legs are feeling like cinderblocks and we’ll break it down and do more mental stuff those days,” Russell said of his six seniors, “They are the glue to our team and a lot of them don’t play as much in games or at all sometimes. That’s a really, really hard thing and I give them a lot of credit because they’re very comfortable with their roles. My heart breaks for them at times, especially in games like this because you don’t know if it’s going to be there last or whether or not they get in. They support and they’re the first players to jump up off the bench when somebody scores or if somebody comes out of the game. They’ve really help our team and and they are going to be really successful kids.”
The opening round victory was just the first step for Wethersfield, who entered the state tournament as the 10th seed following a 14-6 season. The team suffered only one double-digit loss all season and won 11 of their final 14 regular season games.
In round two the team traveled to Pomperaug and upset the seventh-seeded Panthers, 62-46, behind 17 points from Samse and five three-pointers from Juliana Mandile.
The win propelled the Eagles into the quarterfinals and earned them a trip back to WHS for a date with #15 East Lyme this Thurs, March 8 at 6 p.m.
The quarters clash is back at home because East Lyme shocked #2 Holy Cross in the second round.
Gwynn and Russell agree that the team needs to to communicate better and make the smarter decision, along with making their foul shots, to keep their tourney run alive.
“We’ve also got to get a little better on the boards. It’s not all size in rebounding, it is a lot of positioning,” added Russell, “Sometimes I think we try and rely on our athleticism a little more than we do our positioning.”
It will ultimately be those second chance points and the team’s fifth gear that will be the key to advancing further in the tourney.
In other girls tourney action, Rocky Hill breezed through the first two rounds of the Class M tourney. The Terriers first knocked out East Catholic 54-27 and then eliminated Seymour 62-44 in the second round, behind a game-high 21 points from Nikki Lukens. Grace Moore chipped in 13 and Grace Fisher added 10.
Cromwell defeated Ledyard 65-31 in the first round of Class M. Vanessa Stolstajner led the way with 16 points and eight rebound and Najila Cencenjanin added 10 more points. The Panthers journey ended in round two where they fell to Career 54-48.
Middletown traveled to Ridgefield in the opening round of Class LL and won 51-43 behind 30 combined points from Dominique Highsmith, Amanda Fudge and Silvana Barcomb. The Blue Dragons fell to Trumbull, 66-46, in the second round.
Newington was eliminated in the opening round of Class LL by Newtown, 60-38. Ashanti Frazier led the Indians with 10 points in the loss and finished her sophomore season as the team’s leading scoring, averaging over 16 points per contest.
Eagles Swim & Dive Reclaims Conference Crown
Head coach Lee Schwartzman celebrates during a meet at WHS
Wethersfield boys swimming and diving won the CCC-North championships at WHS on March 1. The Eagles compiled an overall score of 369 points, easily defeating the five other schools competing, which included Newington and Rocky Hill.
The Eagles finished the championship meet with a bang, breaking the pool record in the 400 freestyle relay. Holden Hoon, Blake Fulton, Caleb Skowronek, and Shane Bresnahan finished with a time of 3:22.09, which topped the previous mark.
Fulton also won both the 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke, while Hoon took home a first-place finish in the 200 IM. The duo also teamed with Skowronek and Austin Bovino for a win in the 200 medley relay.
Wethersfield diver Hadden Gaunt also had the best overall score of all the divers.
Rocky Hill’s Brian Speers won the 500 freestyle.
Next up are the state tournaments, starting this week and concluding with the Open Swimming Championship at Yale on March 17.
(Rocky Hill's Will White and Newington's J.P. DeCastro look on during the Indians 59-40 victory at NHS)
Resiliency paid off for Newington boys’ basketball.
After losing 15 of their first 18 contests the Indians won back-to-back games to close out the season, including an impressive 59-40 season-finale victory over Rocky Hill to celebrate Senior Night last Tuesday at NHS.
“People identify wins as the success but I identify wins as the end result of a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” said Newington’s first-year head coach Ed Quick, “We got better throughout the year and we closed the right way. We played a top schedule in the state and the kids never stopped playing and never gave in. They came in every day and pulled each other up and we got better.”
Quick took over a program that had only three seniors returning from a season ago, but the three were vital for helping develop the younger players and they departed on a high note, receiving countless ovations throughout their special night.
Guard J.P. DeCastro was particularly spectacular from start to finish, scoring a game-high 21 points in the finale over Rocky Hill.
“It’s my senior year and the season didn’t go the way I wanted it to but to end it the way we did means a lot,” DeCastro said immediately following his final game at Newington, “It was very special night and I just love the way we ended it.”
DeCastro wasted little time Tuesday night, scoring 11 first-quarter points, which included a pair of three pointers in the first couple of minutes of the game. He also started the second half by knocking down two more long-range triples.
“I wanted to leave it all on the floor and I think I did,” added DeCastro.
Thanks to DeCastro’s efforts and the emotions and energy of the night, the Indians jumped out to a 15-3 advantage after the first quarter and led by as many at 26 points late in the third quarter.
“It was definitely a disappointing effort both mentally and physically. We just didn’t give it,” said Rocky Hill head coach Josh Dinerman, whose team won the previous matchup with Newington, 57-53, on Jan 18, “We respected them and I told the team that they are a much improved team and don’t let their record fool you. They have a lot of talent and got off to a hot start and a couple of their seniors stepped up and came up big. We just fell behind and didn’t have the motivation and determination to get over the hump.”
After scoring only three points in the first quarter, the Terriers were unable to generate a consistent offense and the deficit grew. Newington’s length made it difficult for the road team to get easy looks at the basket and the Indians frontcourt also stepped up on the offensive end.
Forward Theodore Fravel showed an array of moves on the night, hitting a hook shot early and canning a pair of jump shots later. The junior finished with 10 points.
Fellow big man Mason Romano added nine points, which included a two-handed tip dunk in the second quarter that nearly brought the house down.
The two offered a glimpse at what the future of boys’ basketball in Newington will look like, but the night belonged to the seniors and they did not disappoint.
Like DeCastro, James Holley and Colin Freeman also tasted victory on their final game inside Richard Rogalski Gymnasium.
Holley scored eight points and was a defensive shadow on the perimeter. Freeman had a solid all-around game, added two points in the third.
“The seniors did an awesome job and I’m really proud of them. They’re all terrific kids and they’re as important as anyone in the program because the challenge I gave him all year was being a part of the brick building that we’re trying to establish. They mean a lot to me because they came every day and worked hard,” stated Quick, “I just kept telling them that we’ll get better today. We don’t control what happened yesterday, we can only control what happens today and the seniors came in every day and did a great job.”
“I feel like I showed everyone what I love about this school and this game,” said DeCastro, who will major in Criminology in college and hopes to continue his basketball career at the next level, “Not only did I build a family with this team but I feel like the legacy that I left here and the passion that I brought every day to practice and the games will carry over into next year.”
Quick added that planning and training for next year starts immediately and that the approach and mentality will remain the same.
“I’ve been through this four times as a head coach and every time the formula is the same. Come in and establish what you believe in, work hard in practice, and make growth the right way,” said Quick, who has previous coaching experience at both the high school and collegiate level, “As far as kids attitude and effort, I don’t think that every changes no matter what level you’re at. The thing I like about high school is that you can really build a community and there’s awesome support here at Newington. I couldn’t ask for more from the athletic director, the administration, the parents, and the kids.”
Quick will have a slew of talent will be returning next season. Fravel and Romano will be joined by Jarden Morris, Louis Egbuna, and Izayah Ciarcia, who all came off the bench against Rocky Hill and made an impact.
Morris scored five straight points late in the third quarter, Egbuna was a force defensively, and Carcia added four points, showcasing his ability to get to the bucket on both of his baskets.
All told the team has nearly 30 players coming back next season, not including the incoming freshmen.
“We’ve designed a lot of things to build the program with some of the young kids that are here. I just want what is best for this program. I envision us just getting better every day like we did this year,” Quick added.
Quick’s previous coaching stops include Trinity College, Wesleyan, Western Connecticut, as well as, Glastonbury and Hartford Public High School. He’s leaning on his years of experience and the mentoring he’s received from those closest to him.
“It’s not my first rodeo, it’s just my last,” the veteran coach said with a chuckle, “I played for a great high school coach and a great college coach and I have awesome parents. I’ve been a part of a lot of successful programs and all the people that I’ve been around, including my parents and grandparents, never let you get too high but they never let you get too low. I call it reverse mentoring, they always showed more love and caring when you were down and they helped pull you back up. They thought me how to win with humility and lose with dignity. Those are the lesson we want to teach and we want to make it a real community program here in Newington.”
Senior night signified the end of the season Quick and his team, but Rocky Hill has some unfinished business this winter.
The loss to Newington stung but the Terriers won eight regular season games and qualified for the Division IV tourney, which starts next week.
“It was a disappointing game overall for us. It’s the simple stuff like moving without the ball and we’re just not communicating. It wasn’t the way we wanted to end the regular season but we have two weeks to prepare and I told them that there will be no day off tomorrow. We’ll be right back at it and we have a chance going in but we have to put in the work day in and day out,” stated Dinerman.
Andrew DiMatteo led the Terriers with 17 points, all coming after the first quarter. Sean Walsh, Riley Donovan, and Joseph Schiavone each scored five.
“It’s going to take the seniors will, want, and determination to get over that hump. They need to focus and realize that we can’t take these two weeks lightly,” added Dinerman, “I’m going to set up scrimmages, we’re going to get after it every single day and hopefully we get better and be ready for the tournament.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin