Cromwell's Jessica Grodzicki guards Lillian Martineau of Lewis Mills during the Panthers 46-36 Class M tournament victory on March 1 / Cromwell senior Sam Stergos looks to pass against East Hampton in the team's 63-43 win over the Bellringers in the Shoreline semifinals
Because of scheduling and other logistics, it is uncommon both the girls’ and boys’ varsity basketball teams get to play on the same night in the same gym.
Cromwell High School experienced that rare roundball double-header last Tuesday night when girls hosted an opening-round state tournament game and the boys followed with a conference semifinal contest.
In keeping with tradition, Cromwell–-known as the Home of the Championships—won both games at Jake Salafia Gymnasium at CHS.
The girls started the night with a 46-36 win over Lewis Mills to win their Class M first round game. The Panthers built a big lead before overcoming a setback in the second half to eliminate the visiting Spartans and advance to the second round.
Brynn Kovacs provided Cromwell an 8-6 lead midway through the first quarter when she intercepted a pass and converted a layup in transition. Kovacs steal-and-score was part of a 14-point surge as the Panthers closed the half on a 25-4 run.
Nevaeh Clark scored a team-high 11 points and Jessica Grodzicki added 10 more, while Adela Cecunjanin shined defensively with a team-high 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks.
Clark, who is the team’s leading scorer and point guard, made her final bucket in the opening minute of the third quarter when she sank a floater. However, when Clark came down to the ground she tweaked her knee, causing her to miss the rest of the game.
Clark’s injury forced head coach Kelly Maher to shorten her already thin rotation and Lewis Mills responded with a 10-2 run, narrowing the deficit to 33-20.
“I think [the team] got rattled early, but they took it one possession at a time and got some key defensive stops and did what they needed to do down the stretch,” recalled Maher. “They have been in these types of situations before and tonight and they could have folded, but I was pleased with how they responded.”
The response was an 8-point run. Kayla Nappi had a rebound putback before Grodzicki scored four straight points. Grodzicki then found Kovacs for a long jumper, upping the margin to 41-20.
Following Clark’s injury, Grodzicki moved to point guard and the rest of the lineup filled the surrounding roles.
“We all communicated on defense and worked our hardest because our defense brings our offense. It all came together,” said Grodzicki.
Nappi was particularly aggressive in the second half, finishing with seven points and nine rebounds, including six offensive rebounds.
“She has really stepped up on both sides of the court, which is really helpful,” Grodzicki said of Nappi.
Maher added that Nappi has expanded her game, becoming a force on the glass and a legitimate scoring threat.
“It has really helped us because other teams have to guard her and it’s brought a whole new dimension to the team,” added Maher.
Cromwell held off one last Lewis Mill’s run behind freshman Riley Mills, who scored a game-high 14 in defeat.
Along with her point guard duties in the second half, Grodzicki was also tasked with helping guard Mills. Grodzicki and sophomore Cameryn Hickey fought through multiple screens on each possession to limit the Spartans first-year phenom.
Hickey has become an unsung hero for the Panthers success this season.
“She has really grown since the first day. Her all-round game has grown,” Maher said of Hickey. “Defensively she has picked it up and I think she embraces guarding the best guard. Offensively she has developed into a threat because she can drive, she can dish, and she can shoot.”
In the end it was team’s grit and determination that allowed the Panthers to overcome the second-half adversity and rise to the 10-point tourney win.
“All of us getting on the floor and making that extra pass and just doing the extra things really helped us to win tonight.” said Grodzicki, “It feels really good. We didn’t achieve our goal in the Shoreline so it feels really good to be able to achieve this goal and keep going.”
The boys duplicated the girls’ double-digit margin of victory by eliminating East Hampton 63-43 in the Shoreline Conference (SLC) semifinals.
Senior’s Ginaluca Albert (21 points) and JJ Feehan (14) led the way.
Feehan started the game like a house of fire, scoring the team’s first seven points. He scored on a rebound putback and then grabbed a defensive rebound before taking it coast-to-coast and kissing it off glass, making it 4-0 within the first minute. A few possessions later, he drilled a three-pointer.
Feehan said it was on the seniors to set the tone early, adding, “We have five seniors and three of them start and so we tried to push the ball and push the intensity every game. We want to come out and go up at the start because it breaks the other team’s morale.”
The Panthers never trailed in the contest. However it did get dicey when they missed their final four shots of the first half, prompting a 10-0 scoring run by East Hampton. The run spanned the late stages of the second quarter into the third, cutting the margin to 25-24.
Albert, who was later named the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year, then scored 10 points in the third to ignite a 16-point run which put the game out of reach at 49-30.
Head coach John Pinone was pleased with how his team responded after a sluggish close to the first half.
“The first half they beat us up inside physically, getting second and third shots,” said Pinone. “In the second half we were able to run our offense a little better. We screened better, we hit some open shots, and a couple times we got second opportunities. I think our defense did a much better job when we had that run.”
Feehan said it was about getting better shot selection, adding, “We just had to focus and get good looks. We had to attack the rim and make our threes.”
Sophomore Victor Payne added 10 points in the win and senior Sam Stergos came off the bench to provide a physical nature.
Stergos, a 6’5” center, scored a pair of buckets down low, hauled down a half dozen rebounds, and blocked two shots. He also made the highlight of the night with 6:50 left in regulation when he received a pass just outside the arc and lofted a perfect alley-oop pass to Feehan, who converted on his end to make it 51-32 with 6:50 left in regulation.
Pinone said Stergos has added another dimension to the team, particularly over the last month, saying, “He’s playing important minutes for us.”
Pinone added that the seniors are still learning to play in these big tourney games, adding, “It’s the first real tournament experience for these guys. This is the first time they are getting significant minutes in a tournament atmosphere and I think it’s a good opportunity and will only help them the more we play.”
As the final minutes ticked off the clock, the Cromwell student section— known as the CHS MOB—began chanting “We want Morgan!” referencing the impending Shoreline Conference championship game.
Morgan had dealt the Panthers their only loss this season, winning 38-35 on Feb. 18. It snapped a 17-game winning streak for Cromwell and prevented a perfect regular season.
Pinone made it clear that the team has a “next team up mentality.”
“There is nothing good that can be learned from a loss that you can’t learn in a bad win,” the veteran coach said. “Games aren’t won and lost at the buzzer, they are won and lost with plays made or not made during the 32 minutes.”
In the rematch, Cromwell got revenge by knocking off the Huskies from Morgan in the SLC championship game—winning 55-39 on March 4 at Polson Middle School in Madison.
After advancing past the first round, the girls knocked off Wolcott, 53-40, in round two on the same day the boys captured the Shoreline Conference crown.
Clark returned from her injury and the younger girls again stepped up as Hickey led the team with 15 points and Nappi ripped down a team-high 13 rebounds.
The tournament success is nothing new for both the boys and girls programs at CHS, yet the unconventional double-header was something that the players, coaches, and spectators will not soon forget.
Maher, who is also the school’s Athletic Director, said the games were a great morale booster for programs that had the 2020 state tourney cut short and the 2021 season shortened because of COVID-19.
“It’s great for the community and school in general to have two home games in the tournament,” added Maher. “It’s brought a new found energy and it’s just great to see the kids energized for the tournament.”
Cromwell boys basketball celebrates after winning the Shoreline Conference Championship on March 4.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin