Cromwell's Gianluca Albert is guarded by Jeremy Arnum during Valley Regional's 64-39 victory over the Panthers
Valley Regional boys’ basketball entered last Tuesday’s conference tilt at Cromwell riding a 12-game winning streak and exited CHS with a 13th straight win after topping the Panthers 64-39.
For the second time this season the Warriors’ experience lineup had too much length and strength for the young Panthers, who also lost 55-44 in Deep River on Jan 13.
“We’re just locked in on what we’re doing, which is trying to win games. It doesn’t really matter who we are playing against, if we play well, we’ll have a great chance to win a lot of ball games,” said Valley Regional’s head coach Kevin Woods, “[This] is a great rivalry. It’s been a great rivalry for the past 11 or so years and we respect them. It’s kind of like that old school Big East mentality, there’s a little extra on the line when we play.”
Woods’ team, which features five senior starters, proved to be the aggressors from start to finish.
Chris Sparaco opened the game on a personal 7-0 run---rebounding and laying up a miss, hitting a short jump hook, and finishing an old-fashioned three-point play before the Panthers were able to get on the scoreboard. The senior forward finished with a game-high 17 points to lead a balanced scoring attack.
Sparaco, Gavin Grabowski (11), Cade Ensinger (8), and freshman Jeremy Arnum (6) were four of 11 Warriors who broke into the scoring column.
John Tibbetts controlled the middle defensively, registering 10 rebounds and three block, while Ensinger added five steals.
“To start five seniors and bring four more off the bench, that was the difference tonight. You saw that experience take over down the stretch,” added Woods, who knows what it’s like to be on the losing end of this rivalry, “They’ve had our number since basically 2013. They are going to be very good in the future, they are very young. We know if we see them again it won’t be the same team we saw tonight.”
The road Warriors led 16-6 after the first quarter and never looked back.
Every time Cromwell seized some momentum, Valley would respond. Cromwell sophomore Gianluca Albert canned an off-balanced three pointer in the waning seconds of the first half but Saager Patel countered with a long three of his own as the second-quarter buzzer sounded.
“Tonight we just got physically beat up,” said Cromwell head coach John Pinone, “They took it to us and we couldn’t respond. When you’re playing a team as good as Valley you can’t play tentative and we played tentative in the first quarter. We had some wide-open looks and didn’t make the shots and when you have to play from behind against them it’s a really hard thing to do.”
Trailing 35-17 at the half, Pinone’s team began the second half on a 5-0 run thanks to a layup from James Grodzicki, following a nice feed from Nick Polizonis, and another three from Albert.
Valley again responded, scoring 10 of the next 12, which pleased Woods, “Last game we were up 18 at the half and had a letdown in the second half and we didn’t want to have another letdown tonight. They came out with a five-point swing and then we battled back and found a way to win the quarter. That’s just showing growth for what we want to do.”
Valley has solidified themselves as one of the better teams in Division V, adding a year’s worth of experience on a team that advanced to the semifinals in the 2019 state tourney.
Woods said that unselfishness has been the key to success, “The proof is in the pudding. When you’re unselfish and you’re good, people notice that. Biggest difference from last year is our ability to spread the basketball around and our defense is tremendous. Defense is the name of the game.”
Woods and his Warriors made it 14th in a row last Friday, downing Coginchaug 60-43, “We just have to continue to spread out the scoring and continue to distribute the basketball, and we’ve done a great job of that so far. We have four guys that average double digits, you don’t see that on a lot of high school programs. Our goal is to create for everybody, we don’t care who gets the credit.”
For Pinone and his Panthers, it’s back to the basics for a team that has shown some positive signs this season, winning 10 of their first 15 games.
“We’re up and down. We’re challenged in the fact that we’re not a great offensive team and tonight we weren’t a good defensive team, so we have a lot of challenges. When we’re good, we’re good but when things don’t go so well, we’re really bad.”
Albert finished with a season-high 13 points and Zykarie Wilborn added nine off the bench for the home team, which got only 10 points from their starting five.
Grodzicki and fellow junior Michael Morgan, along with senior Tyler Baldwin, have been consistent all season but all three struggled to find space against Valley’s length.
“We’re going to learn from this. Unfortunately this has happened to us before and we haven’t learned from it. When you’re playing the better teams and you don’t play hard enough or physical enough and don’t play with an edge or attitude, results like tonight happen.”
The good news is that the Panthers have already wrapped up a spot in the Division IV tournament, which starts in early March, and now it’s about rediscovering that consistency before the conference and state tourneys tip off.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin