Sneak Peek At The 2021 Shoreline Conference Season

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Pictured: Morgan is expected to be a contender again, with returning First Team All Shoreline guard Catie Donadio leading the way.

The Shoreline Conference girls basketball season begins in earnest tonight. The teams will play a 12-game schedule into mid-March, with a conference tournament planned. The CIAC tournaments will not go on this winter.

A capsule preview of nine of the 12 Shoreline programs:

COGINCHAUG

Coach: Chris Watson

Last year’s record: 15-9

Postseason: Reached Class S quarterfinals

Scheduled opener: Wednesday at Old Lyme

Top returning players: Jessica Berens, Sr. C, 6-4; Amalia DeMartino, Sr. G; Maura Zettergren, Sr. F; Alyssa Woodward, Jr. G.

Other returners/newcomers: Katie Farr, Soph. G; Chloe Shafir, Soph. G.; Mia Poturnicki, Soph. F.

Outlook: The Blue Devils graduated four impact players, so the underclassmen’s progress around this year’s top four – led by Division I Bryant-bound Berens – will tell the tale. It’s all about building depth. “We’re a real mystery for everybody,” Watson said. Zettergren had a strong first half of her junior season before suffering an ACL tear. “She looks great and played volleyball all fall,” Watson said. Woodward will start after coming off the bench as a sophomore. Newcomer Shafir, part of a  strong sophomore class, is expected to be one of the team’s better offensive players. “She knows how to create her shot and is good in transition,” her coach said. Farr, one of Shoreline’s top soccer players, brings athleticism at the point and a difference-making defensive game. Watson will find minutes for 6-foot post player Poturnicki. “I compare her to (graduated post player) Molly Shields.,” Watson said. “Slowly, surely, she will develop into an important player for us. She knows the game and is smart and works really hard.”

CROMWELL

Coach: Kelly Maher

Last year’s record: 17-8

Postseason: Reached Class M semifinals

Scheduled opener: Wednesday at H-K

Top returning players: Monica Dewey, Sr. PG; Nevaeh Clark, Soph. G; Likita Chanda, Sr. G; Adela Cecunjanin, Soph. C.; Erica Dewey, Sr. G.

Cromwell coach Kelly Maher, left, with seniors Likita Chanda and Monica Dewey during the first week of practice.

Other returners/newcomers: Jessica Grodzicki, Soph. G; MaryKate Sullivan, Soph. F; Grace Mikan, Soph. G; Cameryn Hickey, Fr. G.

Outlook: Without two-time Shoreline Player of the Year Vanessa Stolstajner to lean on, the Panthers will look very different this year. Monica Dewey and Clark are returning starters who will pilot the running game. Stolstajner averaged 18 points per game the last two seasons. The scoring this season will be spread across the lineup. “They know each of them is going to have to do a little more,” Maher said. “On any given night, you’ll see different scorers and the potential for anyone to have a big scoring night.” One key to their success will be how well they defend against more seasoned teams and those with big lineups. “Our running game is going to be our biggest asset,” Monica Dewey said. “We’re going to be working hard on the defensive end. Our offense is going to have to come from our defense.”

EAST HAMPTON

Coach: Shaun Russell

Last year’s record: 23-1, Shoreline champions

Postseason: Reached Class S quarterfinals

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. Morgan

Top returning players: Danielle Adams, Sr. G/F; Angela Mercaldi, Sr. G/F; Meryl Curtin, Sr. G; Hannah Barrientos, Sr. G; Mya Field, Sr. F.

East Hampton coach Shaun Russell, left, returns his starting five for a chance to defend their Shoreline title.

Other returners/newcomers: Madison Yorker, Jr. F; Jordan Murphy, Soph. F; Jackie Russell, Fr. G; Delaney Russell, Fr. G; Amber Murphy, Fr. F; Hailey Pyrek, Fr. G.

Outlook: The Bellringers return their starting five from their Shoreline championship team and have every intention of defending that title. All told, Adams, Mercaldi, Curtin, Barrientos and Field are 52-8 (regular season) since freshman year. Field and Mercaldi were All State a year ago and four-year starters along with Adams. Yorker and Murphy essentially are starters coming off the bench. Russell is excited about having nine freshmen that will be brought along by his seniors. Although they will not play for a state championship for a second year in a row, the seniors are motivated to finish their careers strong. “They see how it lays out, and the fact there is a chance of a possibility to play in a conference tournament and maybe have get a chance to defend their championship if we play well enough, I think that’s stoked them well enough,” Russell said. “They have adjusted to what our life is now. We can’t waste any time being upset anymore with what’s not going to occur.”

HADDAM-KILLINGWORTH

Coach: Ann Deibert

Last year’s record: 6-16

Postseason: Class M first-round loss

Scheduled opener: Feb. 10 vs. Cromwell

Top returning players: Kaleigh Bodak, Soph. G/F; Tessa Wills, Sr. G; Payton Yazmer, Soph. F.

Other returners/newcomers: Ella McGlynn, Sr. F; Jordan O’Linn, Sr. F; Audra Yazmer, Soph. G; Julia Favalora, Soph. G; Carly Rettberg, Jr. G/F.

Outlook: This is Deibert’s first season leading the varsity after six years as JV coach, so there is plenty of familiarity for the Cougars. “What we’re focusing on is team chemistry and building a style of play that we’re comfortable in, but also one that leads to success,” Deibert said. Bodak, Wills and Payton Yazmer are returning starters. Favalora will play the point. Bodak, a three-sport athlete, showed strong potential as a freshman with four double-doubles and per-game averages of 8 points and 8 rebounds. “She has so much potential not only as a guard, but as a swing and post player,” Deibert said. “She’s grown as a rebounder and finisher around the basket and she’s worked really hard on her ballhandling.” The Cougars have size with Bodak and the 5-11 Yazmer twins. Versatility might be the team’s biggest attribute. “This is a very different team this year,” Deibert said. “We’re much deeper than we’ve ever been. We will play to our personnel. The girls are excited not just to be on the court, but to compete. I think we’ll be very competitive this year.”

HALE-RAY

Coach: Angelo Morello

Last year’s record: 5-15

Postseason: Class M first-round loss

Scheduled opener: Feb. 12 vs. Westbrook

Top returning players: Brooke Praskievicz, Soph. G; Jessica Stricker, Sr. F.

Other returners/newcomers: Woynitu Ciccarello, Fr. G; Jennafaye Haentiens, Jr; Kayla Bartolotta, Jr. G; Gabby Aquilera, Jr.; Alexis Desiata, Sr.

Outlook: Morello, a two-sport coach at Cromwell who was hired at Hale-Ray this year, has seven varsity players to work with in 2021. All are determined to win the respect of their Shoreline peers and turn the program into a destination sport at the school. “We want to get back to respectability,” he said. “I want them to compete. And if we win, it’s just a plus. The girls are competitive and want to win. They want basketball to matter here. The expectation is not just to compete, but to put ourselves in position where we can be successful.” Morello has an up-and-coming freshman point guard in Ciccarello, and with All-State volleyball player Praskievicz, who also can play the point. “I can’t say enough about Brooke. She’s a coach’s dream,” Morello said. “She comes in every single day the same way – going very hard. She does not take a play off.” Stricker, another all-around athlete, is nursing an ankle injury. The 5-11 Aquilera will bring an inside presence.

MORGAN

Coach: Caitlin Woods

Last year’s record: 18-7

Postseason: Class M second-round loss

Scheduled opener: Wednesday at East Hampton

Top returning players: Catie Donadio, Sr. G; Alex Kelly, Sr. G/F; Caeley Ayer, Soph G., Katie Martin, Soph. G/F.

Other returners/newcomers: Sofie Passante, Soph. F; Ava Johnson, Fr. G.

Outlook: With 5-11 finesse player Leah McComiskey having graduated, Woods believes the Huskies will be a more physical team this season. The Huskies will contend for the Shoreline championship. They have one of the top players in the conference in Donadio, a gritty First Team All-Shoreline guard who will go on to play at Conn College. Ayer was one of the league’s top freshman a year ago. The 6-foot Kelly, who came off the bench as a junior but logged starters’ minutes, can play inside and outside. Martin “can play everywhere on the floor. Passante, a first-year varsity player, brings a physical game. “Like Catie, Sofie uses her body really well on the perimeter,” Woods said.

OLD LYME

Coach: Don Bugbee

Last year’s record: 16-8

Postseason: Reached Class S quarterfinals

Scheduled opener: Wednesday vs. Coginchaug

Top returning players: Sam Gray, Sr. G; Emily DeRoehn, Sr. G; Grace Lathrop, Sr. G; Emma McCulloch, Sr. C; Ellie Zrenda, Sr. F.

Other returners/newcomers: Megan Loflin, Jr. C; Ali Kyle, Soph. G; Hayley Cann, Soph. C; Alexis Fenton, Soph. G.

Outlook: The Wildcats finished strong last season and return their five starters, including First Team All Shoreline guard Gray. Their scheduled Class S quarterfinal against East Hampton would have been a rematch of their Shoreline semifinal encounter – and Bugbee said his team was peaking at that time. Wouldn’t the league’s most experienced teams meeting for this year’s Shoreline title be something? Old Lyme has balance to go with its experience. In addition to a strong backcourt, McCulloch (missed last regular season with a broken wrist) and Zrenda are threats down low and Cann and Loflin provide depth off the bench. “We have good post players and have to take advantage of that,” said Bugbee, now in his 22nd season. “They are all good defenders at their position.” The ‘Cats will be put to the test in their opener against Coginchaug and 6-foot-4 Jess Berens.

PORTLAND

Coach: Lauren Beeler

Last year’s record: 12-11

Postseason: Class S second-round loss

Scheduled opener: Friday vs. Old Lyme

Top returning players: Carly Graves, Sr. G; Ava Hurley, Jr. G; Samantha Lasky, Jr. C; Hannah Brunk, Jr. F.

Outlook: The Highlanders finished last season with just eight healthy players, so those 12 wins – with one coming in the state tournament – are all the more impressive. “This year we have 19 healthy girls, a huge difference for our culture,” said second-year coach Beeler, who encouraged former middle school players who had stopped playing to join the program. Brunk returns after losing all of her sophomore season due to an ACL injury and provides a physical inside presence. She also developed 3-point range during her rehab. Graves and Hurley are experienced varsity players and Lasky will start at center. Beeler said situations will determine who fills out the starting lineup. On expectations this season: “We’re being very realistic,” the coach said. “We want to maintain that winning percentage, but I also want to see them improve and progress. And keeping everyone healthy is No. 1.”

VALLEY REGIONAL

Coach: Jaimie Bickelhaupt

Last year’s record: 8-15

Postseason: Class S first-round loss

Scheduled opener: Wednesday at North Branford

Top returning players: Addison Marchese, Sr. G; Alena Crosby, Sr. G; Bitsy Klomp, Jr. G; Ava Cunningham, Jr. G; Libby Cap, Sr. F.

Other returners/newcomers: Liz Allen, Soph. G/F; Lily Grow, Soph. F; Abby Bradbury, Soph. G; Olivia Cunningham, Fr. G/F; Sharmel Rivera, Fr. G.

Outlook: Bickelhaupt begins her second season with last year’s roster nearly intact. “I’m feeling over the moon with the group I have,” she said. “We’re one year older with the seniors who had to step up last year and the experience that brought. I just can’t wait to see us play.” The Warriors also have seniors Cap and Marchese back in the fold from ACL injuries. Marchese is almost fully back after suffering her injury right before the team’s state tournament game last March. Klomp might be the team’s best defensive player. Crosby is an athlete who was the Shoreline’s volleyball player of the year in the fall. Allen and Grow will provide depth off the bench. The wild card here is the 5-foot-10 Bradbury, who was a starter at Mercy as a freshman and can play either guard spot. “She lends a new dynamic for us,” Bickelhaupt said, while adding the Shoreline will see a smarter and more defensive-minded Warriors team. “I think we’ll have better shot selection and decision-making with the ball. We lost almost half of those games by five points from just making dumb decisions with the ball in times of need. We’re seeing in practice that the girls are making the right passes and looking for each other in the right spots.”