Pictured: Cromwell is undefeated through 11 games, but there’s a lot of basketball to be played in February — and beyond. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

Some notes and observations as the high school basketball season roars into February …

The boys and girls races in the Shoreline Conference are wide open, IMO, and most coaches would probably agree. Where past years have produced clear-cut favorites (East Hampton and Cromwell on the girls’ side; Morgan, Old Lyme and Cromwell for the boys’), that’s not the case this winter.

Let’s start with the race for the Shoreline girls title.

Valley Regional, an 11-player program — you read that right, PROGRAM — has been a mild surprise with its 11-0 start. Coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt has just two seniors, but one is point guard/facilitator Ava Cunningham, who has done a commendable job of steering the offense and setting up Abby Bradbury (junior) and sister Olivia Cunningham (sophomore) for big scoring nights.

“Ava as a floor general has come a long way,” Bickelhaupt said.

The Warriors have bobbed and weaved over the last two weeks without junior Lily Grow, who missed that period of time with a knee injury. Grow will be at full strength for Monday’s game at North Branford. Valley will need her then and beyond, because its second-half schedule is just brutal.

After North Branford, Valley’s week continues with a back-to-back versus 12-1 East Hampton on the road and a home game against 9-win Fitch of the ECC. Following home games against Old Lyme and Haddam-Killingworth, the Warriors take on Cromwell and Morgan twice in a six-day period. This last block of games will determine whether the Warriors, East Hampton or Cromwell go into the Shoreline tournament as the No. 1 seed.

“They’re excited for the challenge,” Bickelhaupt said.

Two-time defending Shoreline champion East Hampton, led by freshman scoring sensation Liana Salamone, still has Morgan, Valley and Cromwell to come. An out-of-conference road game against 11-win Parish Hill also will help coach Shaun Russell’s squad get ready for a postseason run.

The Cromwell girls seek the program’s first Shoreline title since 2019. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Cromwell finally hit the halfway point of its season Friday following a two-week COVID-19 shutdown. The Panthers are 9-1 heading into Monday’s home game against No. 1 Newington. From where I sit, the Panthers have the top starting unit of any Shoreline contender, with three All-Shoreline First Team-caliber players in Nevaeh Clark, Jessica Grodzicki and Adela Cecunjanin.

And we can’t forget Morgan (8-4) and North Branford (10-5). The Huskies have worked their way through a 1-4 start by winning their last seven. It feels like coach Caitlin Woods’ team is a year away from challenging for the title, so it could be disruptor to the others’ championship aspirations. The Thunderbirds have the league’s leading scorer in senior forward Braeden LeBeau and can’t be overlooked. By the way, the aforementioned five are all in Class M. No doubt we’ll see Shoreline matchups as that state tournament plays out.

East Hampton freshman Liana Salamone has been the league’s top newcomer this season. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

The Shoreline boys’ race is no less intriguing.

Cromwell is undefeated through eight conference games and 11 overall, but it means little to Panthers coach John Pinone. He’d be the first to say that five or six teams could win the Shoreline. But until someone stands toe to toe with his club for 32 minutes, Cromwell will remain the team to beat.

Where Cromwell nearly lost a 9-point, fourth-quarter lead against Portland 10 days ago, the Panthers slammed the door in the final minutes Friday night to beat host Hale-Ray 60-52. They denied the Noises second-chance scoring opportunities in a two-possession game. Gianluca Albert ended this one from the free-throw line (he’s gotta be shooting close to a Larry Bird-like 90 percent this season) and that was that.

Defending the Panthers for four quarters is a big ask. They have size and length and attack the basket. They defend well inside 10 feet (just ask Hale-Ray leading scorer Loudon Chupas, who loves to go to the rim). They also have no fewer than five options from 3-point territory — Albert, Victor Payne, JJ Feehan, Jake Salafia and now junior Luke Gagnon, a Xavier transfer who made his season debut Friday and hit one triple off the bench.

Still, there are plenty capable challengers in the picture.

After losses in three of its four games, defending Shoreline champion Morgan has been playing its best basketball these last two weeks. The Huskies won their fourth in a row and seventh in their last eight on Friday night when Alex Fratamico’s shot at the buzzer beat Portland. Alongside returning starters Fratamico and Drew Nye, 6-foot-2 junior Cooper Galdenzi is leading the team in scoring.

Hale-Ray has been playing its best basketball since coach Corey Zdunczyk took charge of the program four years ago. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Despite three conference losses, Hale-Ray (10-3 overall) is a hungry contender continuing its turnaround around coach Corey Zdunczyk. In 2020, the Noises qualified for their first state tournament in nine years and won a first-round game before COVID-19 shut everything down. They would have been eligible had there been a state tournament in 2021.

This year, the team is more than ready to take another step with Chupas averaging 21 points per game and Mamush Ciccarello firing up deep 3s and making them at a rapid clip.

This is a big week for defending Shoreline champion Morgan. The Huskies (8-4), who have won five straight to get to 8-2 in Shoreline play, host East Hampton (8-4) on Tuesday before Friday’s trip to Cromwell. Coach Frank Rossi’s club has settled in these last two weeks and got a nice boost from senior Alex Fratamico, whose basket as time expired Friday beat Portland on its home floor.

If Cromwell continues to win, the rest will spend February jockeying for Shoreline seeding (the top 8 make the tournament). That group: East Hampton, Old Saybrook, Portland, Valley Regional and either Westbrook or Old Lyme.

The Bellringers have won three straight heading into Tuesday’s game in Clinton, having weathered the loss of starting point guard Ethan Palma (elbow injury). With forward Aaron Tolve and point guard Ryan Stratton leading the way, Old Saybrook is capable of challenging for the No. 2 seed. With Portland’s size and its ability to knock down 3’s, the Highlanders can pick off anyone.

And despite Valley’s struggles at 6-7 overall, the Warriors will be the team no one will want to deal with in three weeks – especially if senior guard Simon Partyka returns to the lineup.

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