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