When Sal Morello took over as the new head coach of the Cromwell High School girls’ basketball program he knew he was inheriting an experienced roster and a championship tradition.
Morello, who replaced longtime coach Kelly Maher, now has the Panthers primed for a postseason run after winning 14 of 17 games this season.
Last Tuesday, the Panthers earned win #13 with a convincing 52-32 win over conference rival Morgan at Jake Salafia Gymnasium inside CHS.
Adela Cecunjanin scored a game-high 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds (seven offensive) as the Panthers took an early lead and never looked back.
Cecunjanin, who scored eight points in the opening quarter, is captaining the team with fellow seniors Jessica Grodzicki and Nevaeh Clark.
The 20-point outcome was a vastly different result from when they first played the Huskies in Clinton on Dec. 15 — a game the Panthers won by only two points.
“We work every single day on our conditioning,” said Cecunjanin, who is averaging a double-double (14.3 points and 12.4 rebounds per game) this winter. “We’re running up and down the floor the entire game and honestly I think that is the biggest difference from the first time we played them until now. “
The three captains are joined in the starting lineup by senior Grace Mikan and junior Cameryn Hickey.
Hickey, who added 11 points in the victory, wowed the crowd midway through the first quarter by driving into the front row of the stands to save loose ball and tapping a perfect lead pass to Grodzicki for a transition layup as the Panthers started the game on a 14-1 scoring run.
Hickey’s dive-and-dish was a theme of the night for a Cromwell squad that consistently made the extra effort and extra pass.
The Panthers assisted on 15 of the team’s 21 made field goals, with Grodzicki dishing out seven of those helpers.
Grodzicki said the bond between the returning starters was there from day one and now the connection with the younger players is forming.
“I feel we’re all more comfortable talking and are meshing with the underclassmen,” added Grodzicki. “We know what it’s like to be in their position and we just want to be better as a whole. We all get along really well and it’s easy to play with each other.”
A fierce, aggressive defense was also on display throughout the game, highlighted by the first quarter when Cromwell held Morgan to a mere three points.
Clark said communication has been important on both ends of the court.
“I feel like this year we’re more together as a team and we trust each other more to make that extra pass,” added Clark. “We started to be more unselfish with the ball and it’s gotten us really far so far.”
The connection between the three captains was on full display in the fourth quarter when Grodzicki fired a pass to a cutting Clark, who did a nifty wrap-around bounce pass to Cecunjanin under the hoop for an easy two, putting the team up 50-25 with 6:50 to play in regulation
“They are great passers, I just have to make sure I finish the layup,” said a smiling Cecunjanin. “We just have a lot more trust in each other and there is just comfortability.”
Morello was a longtime assistant under Maher before being named her replacement when she stepped down after 15
seasons to focus on her position as the school’s Athletic Director.
During Maher’s tenure the team won 83% of their games, chalking up 315 victories and three state titles.
Morello’s goal was to continue that winning tradition and so far, so good for the new coach.
Through the first 17 games, Cromwell is outscoring their opponents by 18 points per game and entered the week having won eight straight games.
Morello said a lot of the principles are the same from the team under Maher, but added that he did tweak some philosophical strategy to fit the style basketball that he wants to run.
“Our girls are getting more comfortable with the system that I wanted to put in. It was choppy in the beginning, but this is an experienced group and I think they have figured it out. Hopefully we are hitting our stride,” stated Morello.
Morello added that his seniors have made the transition from assistant to head coach a smooth one, saying, “They have helped out tremendously from setting the tone in practice and with the work ethic. They have set a standard and structure for the other girls. I’ve been lucky.”
The team’s fifth senior, Brynn Kovacs, is the first person off the bench and leads a talented group that can play big minutes if needed.
This was evident in the team’s double overtime victory over Coginchaug on Jan. 27 when Morello needed to play Kovacs, along with junior Kayla Nappi and freshman Piper Kovacs during crucial stretches.
“We have depth and it’s quality depth,” added Morello, who played all 12 of his players in the win over Morgan. “They have come in and given great minutes.”
Grodzicki said that, despite the coaching change, things are “business as usual” this winter.
“We are very used to playing with [Morello] and he is an amazing coach,” added Grodzicki. “We get it done in practice and in the game we show it.”
Clark added that chemistry on the court will be key to keeping the momentum going, adding. “We have been working on our communication a lot and we just have to build on that.”
Next up is a crucial Shoreline Conference (SLC) clash against East Hampton. The Panthers dealt the Bellringers their only loss earlier this season, winning 38-29 at East Hampton High School on Jan. 3.
The rematch is set for this Friday, Feb. 10 at CHS. Tip-off is 7 p.m.
CHS freshman Piper Kovacs defends Morgan’s Ava Johnson during the Panthers 52-32 victory at Cromwell High School on Jan. 31.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin