The Drive For More Titles: ‘We Don’t Want To Let Up’

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Cromwell Panthers At A Glance

Pictured: Vanessa Stolstajner, the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year last season, averaged 18.8 points for the Class M champions.

Division: Class M

Last season: 25-3, Shoreline Conference champions, Class M champions.

2019-20 opener: Dec. 16, home vs. Newtown, 6pm

Key players lost: Najla Cecunjanin (transfer), Jessica DellaRatta, Gina Sousa, Taylor Yankowski, Eliza Weston (graduated).

Key players returning: Sr. F Vanessa Stolstajner (reigning Shoreline Player of the Year), Sr. G Sadie Budzik, Jr. G Monica Dewey, Jr. G Erica Dewey, Soph. F Khaya Skene.

Season Outlook

New group of players, same ambitious team goals.

That’s the Cromwell Way. The Panthers, winners of the last four Shoreline Conference titles (and eight in the last 10 years), are now talking about the drive for five.

At their first practice last week, players gathered at center court, as they always do at the start of a new season, to talk as a team about what they want to accomplish.

“Get to the Shoreline finals, win it,” senior captain Sadie Budzik said, “and get back to Mohegan and win back-to-back state championships.”

Make no mistake, though, the majority of Cromwell’s lineup will have a new look and need time to develop as a unit. At the same time, a number of Shoreline contenders – Morgan, East Hampton and Coginchaug in particular – will kick it up a notch in an attempt to take down the Panthers.

“For the past 10 years, I’d say we’ve had a target on our back. I love that, personally,” Budzik said. “I love having that competition, that drive to get me to continue to do better. I don’t like catching people, I like trying to get away from people so they don’t catch me.

“I like having the target on my back. And we use that as motivation every day. We don’t want to let up as No. 1. We want to stay there.”

The Panthers have Budzik, one of the conference’s top point guards, and senior combo guard Vanessa Stolstajner, the reigning Shoreline Player of the Year, as third-year starters. She was a force inside and outside last season, averaging 18.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in a team-high 26 minutes last season.

Stolstajner might have to play closer to the basket this season, knowing Cromwell has a guard-oriented roster. Coach Kelly Maher is figuring out what the rest of the lineup and rotation will look like after losing three starters (Najla Cecunjanin, Jessica DellaRatta and Gina Sousa) and two good role players (Eliza Weston and Taylor Yankowski) from last year’s team.

Monica Dewey, who averaged eight minutes per game as a sophomore, is expected to join Budzik in the backcourt. Erica Dewey and Likita Chanda, both juniors, and sophomore forward Khaya Skene played varsity minutes last season. Also at Maher’s disposal are promising freshmen Nevaeh Clark and Adela Cecunjanin.

“We’ve changed some things this season according to the clientele we have,” Maher said. “We have a lot of guards and we’re young in the post area. That will be a growth area.

“Our style of play will be the same (the Panthers play an up-tempo game), but we’ll have different focus areas to maximize our potential. Every year is a different group, so it will be finding chemistry of those kids who work well together, and figuring out those lineups. Those players who got playing time last year, that experience with pace of the game and positioning — it’s their time to step up.”

Stolstajner, who had foot surgery during the summer, has improved her mid-range game and also has developed more as a leader, Maher said.

“Her and Sadie, we look to them as our leaders on the court,” the coach said. “They will take control of situations when things get a little hectic, calm things down, which they’ve done that in the scrimmages.”

The Panthers open with two out-of-conference opponents – Newtown on Monday and Pomperaug on Wednesday (road game) – and finish the week with a home game against Old Lyme on Saturday.