Pictured: Teammates Sadie Budzik, left, and Vanessa Stolstajner were three-year starters at Cromwell and a part of one state championship team and three Shoreline Conference title winners.

By Paul Augeri

CROMWELL — What longtime teammates Sadie Budzik and Vanessa Stolstajner will likely miss most about Cromwell High basketball is each other.

Close friends off the court and thick as thieves on it, where most times the three-year starters didn’t have to say a word to know what the other’s next move would be.

“Over the years we kind of became one person when we were playing,” Budzik said.

“We have had a really good connection,” Stolstajner said. “I have a bond with Sadie. I loved playing with her. We just knew each other the best.”

Budzik, a 5-foot-6 combo guard, and Stolstajner, a 5-9 can-do-everything forward, grew up playing on travel teams with other Cromwell kids. In middle school, they got swept up as fans in the Panthers’ undefeated run to the 2016 Class M championship. They entered high school that fall with dreams of winning a state title of their own.

It happened for them as juniors. After winning the Shoreline Conference title for a fourth straight year, Cromwell won a close game against Kolbe Cathedral in the Class M semifinals and defeated Sheehan 60-51 in the final at Mohegan Sun, the program’s third championship of the decade.

Sadie Budzik, left, and Vanessa Stolstajner played on the same youth travel teams and went out together as the only seniors on Cromwell’s 2019-2020 squad.

That summer, forward Najla Cecunjanin, the only other player in the Class of 2020, transferred to prep school. Budzik and Stolstajner, appropriately, would hit the finish line together, just the two of them.

“It’s funny because we used to always have a lot of girls playing travel basketball and we always had a solid team,” Stolstajner said. “We always had 10 girls. When we got to high school, there were six of us freshmen. A couple just stopped playing, and (over time) so did others who played other sports that maybe were more important (to them).

“Sadie and I never thought it would be just the two of us by our senior year. This last season, I really noticed it with so many younger girls on the team.”

Ultimately, their appreciation for each other as players overrode the disappointment that came from the unceremonious end to their careers.

After an unspectacular (by Cromwell standards) 13-7 regular season that saw the end to their 62-game conference winning streak and Shoreline championship supremacy, the Panthers won three games in the Class M tournament, the last on March 9, when they crushed SMSA to advance to the semifinals.

Budzik (far right, with Stolstajner to her right) huddles with the Panthers during their Shoreline tournament semifinal game against Morgan in February.

The next morning, their title defense evaporated. The CIAC canceled the remainder of the winter season tournaments because of growing concern with the coronavirus, which since became a global pandemic and has killed tens of thousands.

Like most athletes around the state, Budzik and Stolstajner got word of the cancellation in texts during class time. No longer would the Panthers have the opportunity to become the first Class M team to win back-to-back titles since Jennifer Rizzotti and New Fairfield did it in 1992.

“When I first heard about it, I was crushed,” Budzik said. “I was just gaining confidence in the team. It definitely felt like we had a good shot this year. It would have been awesome to finish the year the same way we finished last year.”

For Stolstajner, the end to the season – and her high school career – at first was “unsettling.”

“I don’t think it was the wrong decision from a health aspect,” she said. “It was just a weird time. It was hard to be angry just because of the situation. The whole day was just very weird. It was hard to feel one emotion. It was a mix of emotions. I wouldn’t say I was devastated, I was definitely upset, but I didn’t come home and cry into my pillow.”

Budzik and Stolstajner did great things for coach Kelly Maher’s program in their own ways.

Budzik played point guard as a sophomore, stepping in to fill a need, and kept the role her junior year, which culminated with a team-best 18-point performance in the Class M final. She adjusted well to the move to shooting guard this year, again to fill a need, as Maher worked three new faces into starting roles.

Budzik was an All-Shoreline Second Team selection, averaging 8 points, 3.5 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals per game and leading the Panthers in minutes this season. She also was the Shoreline’s Player of the Year in volleyball as a senior.

Stolstajner, who played varsity as a freshman, had the skill set to do whatever was required – shoot, drive, rebound or guard. She led the team in scoring as a sophomore (13.6 ppg), junior (18.8) and senior (16.9).

“With a very young team, we would always look to them if we needed a basket or a stop,” Maher said. “The younger players really relied on those two. And a lot of times they would come through. To have them as part of our program for the last four years, it’s been special with what they have learned and what they’ve taught the younger players this year. Sadie and Vanessa have done a lot to help our program grow.”

Stolstajner capped this season with her second Shoreline Player of the Year award. She also was a 1,000-point career scorer.

“We always knew what we would get out of Vanessa,” Maher said, “but the one thing about this year was her getting others involved. She was the main focal point, getting double- or triple-teamed, and I think she learned how to get others involved, and that opened up Vanessa’s game in other ways.”

Cromwell won 63 of 78 games over the last three seasons with Budzik and Stolstajner in starting roles.

“What I want to remember the most is that the little things matter and it really does take a team to win,” Budzik said. “Last year (2019) with our basketball team, we had so many little aspects to our team that made us win. Gina (Sousa) was our encourager, our motivator. Jess (DellaRatta) was our screamer for the rebounds. Eliza Weston was quick off the bench. And Vanessa and Najla did the scoring. And there was me, the ballhandler. All of those aspects together made us one dominant force.”

“I’m just so happy that I was a part of the program,” Stolstajner said. “In middle school, the (high school) girls were so successful and I thought so highly of the team. I remember I was so excited to get to high school, and nervous come tryouts. The other thing is how different our teams were every year. The people coming in and people graduating. The nature of the team was always so different. I’m definitely going to miss it. I made great friends and great connections than if I wouldn’t have played. I am proud to have accomplished individual things and I definitely worked hard for them, but nothing compares to the championships and the wins themselves.”

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