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
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin