Cromwell freshman Adela Cecunjanin battles for position during the Panthers 64-45 victory over Valley Regional last Tuesday
It is said the only thing harder than winning a championship is defending that title.
Coming off a championship triumph in 2019, Cromwell girls’ basketball is attempting to duplicate that feat in 2020.
Despite a slow start last Tuesday night, head coach Kelly Maher and her Panthers took another step towards that goal, defeating conference foe Valley Regional, 64-45, inside Jake Salafia Gymnasium at Cromwell High School.
“We really weren’t running through our offense, we looked panicked, we were really rushing our shots. And defensively we weren’t great, we weren’t were we were supposed to be, we weren’t helping. Part of that is that Valley is a very good team and they attacked the basket and took away a lot of what we wanted,” Maher said about the team’s performance in the first half, “At halftime we told them that they had to match their aggressiveness and it worked. We made the adjustments, we settled down, ran through our offense, and did the things that we do.”
Cromwell outscored the visiting Warriors 42-24 in the second half, pulling away for their sixth victory in seven games.
After trailing by one after the first quarter and holding a 22-21 lead at the half, the Panthers started the second half on a 10-0 run.
Guard Sadie Budzik, who was held scoreless in the first half after getting into foul trouble, drained back-to-back threes to open the third.
“Recently we’ve gone into the locker room at halftime and we know we can do more. I think that drives us. We want to be that third quarter team that bumps up the score, so we just bring a lot of energy,” said Budzik, who finished the night with 10 points and four assists.
Vanessa Stolstajner had a game-high 18 points, including seven early in the fourth to put the game on ice.
“We’re learning how to move with different girls that we haven’t played with before and being in the right spots to be able to distribute the ball to each other,” said Stolstajner.
Budzik and Stolstajner are the only two returning starters from last year’s championship squad, which defeated Sheehan in the Class M title game at Mohegan Sun last March
Maher credited the senior duo with guiding the young roster through a tough early-season schedule, which included consecutive losses to start the season, “We’re getting there, but we’re really young. It’s a whole new group and really just Sadie and Vanessa have a ton of experience. It’s just about settling in and it’s their leadership that brings it out.”
Budzik added that her and Stolstajner knew they’d have to adapt to a new lineup this season, “Vanessa and myself have similar roles from last year but when you’re working with different people that you haven’t played with before you have to get used to the new people. It took us a few games and scrimmages to finally get the hang of each other and understand how we all work together.”
Junior Monica Dewey, sophomore Khaya Skene, and freshman Nevaeh Clark round out the starters, giving the team an interesting mix on the court.
Dewey dished out a game-high nine assists, while Skene scored 11 points and again was great of the glass, grabbing 10 rebounds. It was her eighth straight game with double-digit rebounds.
“She’s getting better and better every game. She’s starting to do the little things really well,” Maher said of her sophomore forward, “We’re just trying to focus on one thing at a time with the younger players.”
Clark scored all eight of her points in the second half, six coming in the third quarter. She’s a natural at finishing at the cup and stopped a Valley scoring run in the third quarter, making a contested lay-up on a beautifully executed possession in which all five players touched the ball in transition.
Fellow freshman Adela Cecunjanin hauled down eight rebounds off the bench.
Erica Dewey (Monica’s twin sister) and Likhita Chanda also sparked the team off the bench. Dewey came in red-hot in the first quarter, scoring seven points in the frame, and Chanda shined in the second half, scoring all eight of her points over the final 16 minutes.
“Erica and Likhita always come in and step up for us when we’re tired or when we’re in foul trouble like we were today,” said Budzik.
If a repeat on last year is possible, the team will have to be peaking when the tournament rolls around in less than a month.
Budzik, the 2019 championship game MVP, and Stolstajner, the team’s leading scorer, will again be asked to carry a heavy load in February, and potentially again in March.
“We still have the same mindset as last year. It’s just adjusting because we have such a different team this year,” stated Stolstajner, “A lot of the younger girls are just starting to play together and I think everyone is slowly improving and we’re meshing together. Everyone’s best qualities are helping the team in different ways.”
Last Friday, Cromwell made it seven of eight, defeating North Branford 77-48 on the road. Stolstajner again led the way with 23 points and Cecunjanin added a season-high 13.
The win improved the Panthers to 7-3 entering the week, leaving them with ten regular season games left to iron out the wrinkles prior to tourney-time.
“We’re starting to jell together but there is still some work to be done. We haven’t been together for long and we need to play a full 32 minutes and our shot selection needs to be better,” said Maher.
Budzik echoed her coached, adding, “If we bring our energy at the start of the game, our control of the game will be so much stronger. If we start coming out better and playing quicker and play up to how fast we can play, we can keep it going.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin