Pictured: Valley Regional’s Abby Bradbury attacks the lane in the second quarter of Saturday’s game at H-K. At right is the Cougars’ Ella Commerford. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

HIGGANUM – On the visitors’ side, a starting five that is among the Shoreline Conference’s best despite the presence of just one senior. A team playing with the promise that a league championship is within its reach.

On the home side, a young but talented squad that will be a work in progress as it contends with a brutal seven-game stretch against quality opponents both within the conference and out of it.

Those are some of the takeaways after Valley Regional spoiled a home matinee for Haddam-Killingworth with its 54-37 Shoreline victory on Saturday.

The Warriors, with their defense disrupting the Cougars for much of the game, won their second straight to start the season. Junior forward Lily Grow scored a game-high 14 points and junior guard Abby Bradbury finished with 13. Senior point guard Ava Cunningham assisted Grow and Bradbury, among others, while also contributing 10 points.

Julia Favalora looks for a passing lane while being defended by Ava Cunningham on Saturday. Favalora had 9 points and 4 assists for H-K. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Cheyenne LaTouche and Julia Favalora led H-K (0-2) with 9 points apiece. LaTouche grabbed 6 rebounds and Favalora dished out 4 assists.

“They’re a great team and I think they’re going to vie for the Shoreline championship this year,” said H-K coach Ann Deibert. “We have had Cromwell and Valley back to back to start, but these games absolutely show us what we need to work on.”

While the Warriors pushed the tempo at both ends of the floor, they struggled as much as the Cougars did with finishing shots and taking care not to throw away possessions.

“We play very aggressive and I think sometimes when we play aggressive, we get a little chaotic,” Warriors coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt said. “So what we’ve been working on a lot in the first two weeks of practice is being disciplined. In our rotations, making sure we know what we’re in defensively and what we’re going into offensively. It has been a little bit of a learning curve for them when being so aggressive.”

Valley led 14-7 lead after the first eight minutes and built out its advantage to 12 (27-15) at halftime, getting 9 points from Bradbury and 8 from Cunningham. With sophomore Olivia Cunningham and junior Elizabeth Allen filling out the starting lineup, the  Warriors have a nice mix of size and quickness.

“We’ve been working on making sure we’re in the right spots and talking to each other on defense, which all has to improve, but each day they’re getting a little bit better,” Bickelhaupt said. “That’s all I can ask for. We’re pushing the ball in transition, which is awesome to see, we just have to finish.”

Deibert, a standout player at Clarion University and now in her second season as the Cougars’ head coach, summed up their main deficiency Saturday.

“I tell the kids every game, if you don’t take care of the basketball, nothing else matters,” said Deibert. “And that’s what we still need to work on. That’s the be-all end-all of this game, is taking care of the basketball. We have the personnel. They just need them to be confident in themselves and we’ll be OK.”

H-K managed to cut Valley’s lead to five on two occasions in the second quarter, at 18-13 when Kaleigh Bodak buried a jumper and 20-15 when Audra Yazmer converted a strong drive to the basket with less than 3 minutes to go.

Coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt’s Warriors are off to a 2-0 start after Saturday’s win. Valley has just 10 available players on the varsity roster and no JV squad this season. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

The Warriors, though, strung together seven straight points to finish the half: two from Grow at the free-throw line, a 3-pointer by Bradbury that was set up by Ava Cunningham, and the latter’s jump shot with 51.5 seconds left.

Bickelhaupt wants to see the Warriors playing a fast-paced game every night out.

“It’s what I like to see from them. Being in transition we get great shots, we’re just lacking our finishing abilities around the rim early this season,” she said. “I love that type of game. I think these girls work well in that type of game. Usually when I put them in a fixed offense, it’s a little more robotic. I like when they just play basketball, and I see that a lot in transition.”

The Cougars were unable to take advantage of Grow going to the Valley bench with her third personal foul 90 seconds into the third quarter. H-K cut its deficit to less than 10 just twice before the Warriors began to pull away.

At 29-20, Olivia Cunningham drove the lane for a layup, and a bucket by Ava Cunnington pushed the lead back to 13. Two free throws by Carly Rettberg (6 points, 4 assists, 4 steals) with 3:25 left got H-K within 11 before Grow, now back on the floor, put back an offensive rebound and Olivia Cunningham hit a mid-range shot for a 37-22 lead.

H-K managed just one field goal in the final two minutes of the quarter. Olivia Cunningham and Bradbury scored from the field in the first minute of the fourth quarter to kick Valley’s lead to 15, the closest the Cougars would be to the lead the rest of the way.

“There are tons of great moments from this team, and that’s why I love coaching them. It’s because they come and work hard every day, they want to learn and want to improve,” said Deibert, who noted the strong play from LaTouche and Favalora.

“Cheyenne is really versatile for us and has a nose for the ball on the glass, which helps for Kaleigh getting a little more open,” she said. “Julia has found confidence in herself in being more than just a facilitator. It’s huge and what we spent all summer working on, making her more than a facilitator. I’m loving that she’s is taking more shots and that she’s being more confident in her play, because I’m confident in her play and I’m very confident in what we are capable of as the pieces fall together.”

For Valley, its biggest hurdle will be a lack of depth this season. Bickelhaupt has 10 healthy players at her disposal – in the program. No freshman team, no junior varsity team. The Warriors will be making good with what they have from here on out.

“It’s tough,” she said. “We have 10 ready to go. Two are freshmen who have never played at this level, so it’s really eight to start. And in practice we’re trying to keep legs fresh, trying to go hard but give them a little bit of rest as well, and trying to stay healthy all around. I hope we don’t have to ever face anything that is a killer for us. I hope that never comes about.”

VALLEY REGIONAL (2-0)
Ava Cunningham 5 0-2 10, Lily Grow 5 4-8 14, Abby Bradbury 6 0-0 13, Olivia Cunningham 3 1-3 7, Elizabeth Allen 1 1-2 3, Rubee Cecchini 0 0-2 0, Siena Schaller 2 1-1 5, Regan Grow 0 2-2 2, Sharmel Rivera 0 0-2 0. Totals: 22 9-22 54.

HADDAM-KILLINGWORTH (0-2)
Cheyenne LaTouche 4 1-3 9, Julia Favalora 3 2-2 9, Kaleigh Bodak 1 1-2 3, Audra Yazmer 1 0-0 2, Carly Rettberg 1 4-6 6, Ella Commerford 0 0-0 0, Ana Garcia 0 0-0 0, Keira Czarkowski 2 0-0 4, Brenna Lonergan 0 0-0 0, Margaret Robinson 1 0-0 3, Ava Ramino 0 1-2 1. Totals: 13 9-15 37.

Score By Quarters
Valley……14 13 10 17–54
H-K………..7   8   9 13–37

3-pointers: Valley: Bradbury 1; H-K: Favalora 1, Robinson 1.

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