Cromwell’s basketball program traveled to Portland last Wednesday night for a double-feature of boys and girls varsity action and the Panthers took both games from the Highlanders, winning by a combined 61 points.
The girls opened the evening with a convincing 61-33 victory behind 25 points and 11 rebounds from Vanessa Stolstajner. The 28-point win snapped a two-game skid and improved Kelly Maher’s team to 5-2.
“I like how we’re coming out with intensity,” coach Maher said of the team’s start, “I think we’re getting better defensively and we’re doing a better job at sharing the basketball. We just need to be a little more patient.”
Stolstajner is the team’s leading scorer this season, joining forces with fellow juniors Najla Cecunjanin and Sadie Budzik to create a youthful contingent on the court. All three started as sophomores a year ago and are now flourishing with that gained experience.
Cecunjanin, who leads the team in rebounds and blocks this season, finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Budzik shined on the defensive end with three steals.
“They know what to expect now. They know the competition level and they understand that every team is going to be after us from here on out,” Maher said of the trio, “I think their maturity has really helped us. They’re confident this year and they just need to play within their own means.”
Portland hung around in the first half and trailed only 30-19 at the break, but Stolstajner and Cecunjanin controlled the second half, which the Panthers started on a 28-9 run.
After scoring 15 of her game-high 25 in the first ten minutes following halftime, Stolstajner and the rest of the starters sat for a majority of the fourth quarter.
Cecunjanin added nine points during the second half surge, displaying an added ability on the perimeter.
“She’s always been an inside scorer but she’s develop a three-point shot this past year. She’s been more consistent with it this year and she’s added to her game with her ball handling and ability to get to the basket,” Maher said of the 5’10” Cecunjanin.
All of Maher’s starters stand 5’6” or taller and can play near the basket or stretch the floor with range.
“Our versatility has helped us so far in the early going. Any one of the starters can bring the ball up the court and it can put pressure on the other team defensively, which has made a huge difference,” added Maher, “We’ve done a really good job this year of making everyone know every spot and that’s really helped us.”
Seniors Jessica DellaRatta and Gina Sousa are Maher’s wily veterans, leading by example on the court and in practice.
“Their leadership has been great. They were with us when we won the Shoreline titles and they were on the team that won the state title during their freshman year, so they’ve won a lot,” said the veteran coach, referencing the 2016 championship win over Notre Dame-Fairfield, “They’ve seen what it takes to get there and they know that it just doesn’t happen overnight. It takes every day at practice. They’ve been great in practice with the little things that need to be done if we expect to have a good team.”
Sousa added 10 points in the win and junior Eliza Weston sparked the team off the bench with 6, including back-to-back layups during the Panthers third quarter domination.
In the nightcap, the boys jumped out to a 25-2 lead after the first eight minutes before coasting to a 67-34 victory to remain unbeaten.
Nick Wright led a balanced attack with 16 points and seven rebounds, while JJ Tracy had 15 points and Naimir Heyliger added 14.
The three, along with Tyler Baldwin, were also impressive on the defensive end, shutting down passing lanes and harassing the Highlanders on the perimeter. Tracy was especially active, finishing the night with six steals.
Despite getting into early foul trouble, Gabe Charleston used his long frame and quick hands to control the middle.
“We have guards that can really defend and we’re long under the basket,” stated head coach John Pinone “We’re trying to get the other team out of their comfort zone by getting out on the perimeter and make them do something they aren’t conformable doing. We’re getting better at it, but we can still get much better at it as we go along. Our conditioning has shown too, we’re in pretty good shape so far.”
The Panthers relentless defense didn’t allow a field goal over the first ten minutes of action.
It was reminiscent of the state title game last March when the Panthers stymied Wamogo, holding them four points in the decisive fourth quarter as they pulled away for a 58-40 championship triumph.
“Naimir, JJ, Gabe and Nick are all a year older and a year stronger. Athletically I think we’re much better than last year,” added Pinone, “I don’t know if we’re a better basketball team than we were last year but athletically as far as getting in passing lane and defending and getting in transition and pushing it up quickly, we’re much better this year than we were last year.”
Leading 62-26, Pinone also rested his starters for the entire fourth quarter.
Jack Dooley, Caleb Cain, and Nick Polizonis each contributed six points off the bench.
A principal of Pinone’s teams is always a stout defense and unselfishness on offense, but the offense is still a work in progress and at times the coach thought his boys were a little too unselfish.
“Sometimes we make the extra pass and then we make another extra pass, but if you’ve got a 10-footer you’ve got to shoot it. We get the best shot that we could get and when we make an extra pass sometimes we don’t get anything,” stated Pinone, “This team is going to take a while to jell. We’re getting better but they didn’t play a lot of basketball together before this year. Last year we had five seniors that played a lot of basketball since a very young age and these guys are mix and match guys. We’re going through the process of learning to play together.”
Pinone’s team moved to 5-0 last Friday with a 68-44 win at Morgan. Wright scored 22 and grabbed eights rebounds, and Charleston filled the stat line with 15 points, seven rebounds, and eight blocks.
The girls welcomed the Huskies of Morgan to CHS the same night and won 41-30 to finish the week 6-2. Stolstajner had a game-high 17 points and DellaRatta scored eight and hauled down nine rebounds.
Next up for the programs is a home and away this Thursday and Friday. The boys travel to North Branford (Thurs, Jan 10) for a 7 pm tip and the girls host North Branford (Fri, Jan 11) at 7 pm.
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Riley Donovan- Rocky Hill (Basketball): Donovan started 2019 with a bang, scoring a career-high 30 points and nabbing 14 rebounds in a 59-52 victory over Plainville at RHHS last Wednesday night. The senior followed it up with another solid performance (17 points) in a loss to Wethersfield last Friday.
Ethan Ranger- Cromwell (Hockey): Ranger has been a consistent force on the ice for the Newington co-op team. The senior has been one of the team’s main offensive threats, scoring goals and dishing out assists, including a go-ahead assist in the Indians 1-0 victory over BCR last Saturday.
Sam Hedlund- Newington/Manchester (Hockey): Hedlund scored his first two varsity goals and added two assists in Newington co-op’s 5-1 victory over Tri-Town last Wednesday. The sophomore, who attends Manchester High School, is an up-and-coming star on the ice for the Indians hockey team.
Matt Laurie- Wethersfield (Wrestling): Laurie recorded his 100th career victory on his way to winning the 132 pound weight class bracket at the Bristol Central Invitational last Saturday. Teammate Alec Arnold won the 170-pound bracket at the same invitational.
Matt Lecky- Middletown (Indoor Track): Lecky ran a 4:31.23 in the 1600 at the Elm City Coaches Invite, breaking the school record by four seconds. The senior finished just ahead of teammate Sean Ahern, who finished third with a time of 4:38.11, which was a school record for a sophomore.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin