Pictured: Connor Young’s name adorns Hale-Ray players’ warm-up jerseys as a tribute to their classmate, who died last year. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

Last weekend, with about two-thirds of the high school basketball season behind us, we touched on the state of the Shoreline Conference races. In that short time, the undefeated Cromwell boys have kept their MMA-worthy grip on the lead, while the East Hampton girls have slipped into the driver’s seat after handling Morgan and a now two-loss Valley Regional team.

It is the time of year when you forget about the teams toiling near the bottom of the standings, those still working just as hard as the championship contenders to win games. But we can’t let the Haddam-Killingworth boys’ first dub in 14 tries go without notice.

H-K’s 41-33 win at North Branford on Wednesday also was the first for head coach Brett Cavalieri, who came aboard this season after a couple of years on Jeff Beeman’s staff at Westbrook.

“We were happy to win,” Cavalieri said. “North Branford plays harder than any team in the Shoreline. (John Donohue) does a really good job getting his team ready to play. We have gotten a lot better as the season has gone on. And we’ve started to compete against the better teams. The scores are a lot closer.”

The two coaches are in a similar boat. This is also Donohue’s first season with his squad. The Thunderbirds are 2-12 in a season of growing pains as Donohue puts his stamp on the culture.

Cavalieri called the win “bittersweet” because a North Branford player suffered a serious leg injury in the second quarter, which led to a 45-minute delay in the game. The teams went through a brief warm-up before resuming play.

“It’s the worst injury I’ve been a part of as a player or coach on the court,” said Cavalieri. “It was a tough way to get a first win.”

The Cougars are a hodgepodge of varying skill levels that has continued to meld over the course of the season. Meanwhile, junior Tate Callender, who recently returned from injury, is still trying to work his way into game shape, while the team is still acclimating to his presence. Callender scored a game-high 18 points against North Branford.

Odd thing in the win: Callen Powers, a mainstay in the lineup and most consistent producer, was shut out in the box score.

“He played a really good game even though he didn’t score,” Cavalieri said. “The way the game was flowing, he was rebounding and distributing the basketball. He’s a really good teammate and a leader on the floor and he doesn’t need to score for us to play well. That night, he did what he we needed him to do in the moment.”

Other efforts against North Branford that don’t translate in a box score came from Joe Giaccone and the floor game of Declan Christopher late in the third quarter and beginning of the fourth.

“Joe hit a tremendously big 3 and the foul shot at a key moment in the game that turned the tide for us,” Cavalieri said. “He is amazingly good at coming up with hitting the right shot at the right time. Teams underestimate him because he is so small.

“And Declan Christopher, who’s not getting as many minutes as he would like and doesn’t have as much experience as other players do, came in at a key time when North Branford was speeding us up forcing us into turnovers. Declan came in simply because he’s a senior and we expect him to stay calm. He got in the game and didn’t score, but he ran the offense without turning the ball over and calmed everyone down. And that stopped North Branford’s momentum. He had no points and no rebounds, but he literally changed the game for us single-handedly in the way any point or rebound would.”

Cavalieri said he’s changed the offense during the season, simplified it really, to improve his team’s defensive game. And with just six games to go, he’d like to see the Cougars’ execution at a level that’s very good, knowing the likes of Valley Regional, East Hampton, Morgan and St. Paul are to come.

It’s a small but important step toward a long-term outlook of winning basketball.

“We make too many mistakes that are not forced by the other team,” the coach said. “We are causing almost as many turnovers as the other teams are forcing on ourselves. It’s my number one pet peeve. We still have a few more games that are going to be tough ones, but we’re going to try as hard as we can to win.”

Connor Young’s presence at Hale-Ray

Upon entry to Hale-Ray’s gymnasium, in the far corner where the scoreboard is anchored, hangs a board listing the last names of the team’s varsity players. Topping them all is “Young.”

It is a simple, respectful gesture in tribute to a well-liked  teammate. Connor Young, who was part of the program as a freshman two years ago, died in November. He was 16.

Before a recent home game, Hale-Ray athletic director Marty Ryczek spoke glowingly about a young man everyone knew to be kind, pleasant and helpful. He liked everyone and everyone liked him.

Young also was a budding entrepreneur who ran C&M Lawn and Landscape with Mitchell Myjak. By all accounts, the business was a success from the start. Ryczek related how he’d told Young to let him know when the business made its first million.

Young’s name graces the back of Hale-Ray players’ warm-up jerseys, a gesture that shows he’s on their minds when they play.

“This is a small town, a small community, and these kids are all connected,” Hale-Ray coach Corey Zdunczyk said. “It’s been a lot for teenagers to have to come through something like this. As a community it meant a lot to them to honor Connor in this way. He meant a lot to these kids. He had presence.”

‘Stay the course, stay focused’

The Middletown boys’ 6-game winning streak ended with Thursday’s 65-57 loss at Newington. The Blue Dragons led by 11 in the first quarter before hitting a wall, and coach Eric Holley noted a lack of energy and urgency was a big factor in his team’s failure to mount a comeback.

“It was the type of game we needed because winning a bunch by 20 points does not make us better for the long haul,” the first-year head coach said. “Mental toughness is important. We didn’t do a good job last night.”

Middletown’s bench did not score and the team made just 8 of 18 free-throw attempts. Nasir McDaniel, a key piece in the offense, was out. Elijah Wilborn scored a team-best 19 points and Chace Petgrave had perhaps his best game of the year with 15 points. Matt Steuerwald and Marshall Butler scored 9 each and Tim Vaughters finished with 3.

Five of the Blue Dragons’ final seven games are on the road (Maloney, Weaver, Southington, West Haven and Lewis Mills). They host Bristol Eastern on Monday (Senior Night), and on Feb. 15 Donovan Clingan and undefeated Bristol Central, a season-long No. 1 in the GameTimeCT poll, visit for a 6:45pm tip. A high seed in the 16-team CCC tournament will be at stake for the duration.

“We can win the rest of our games, but we’ve got to do better,” Holley said, pointing to scoring balance and free-throw performance. “Bristol Central will be tough. We have to stay the course and stay focused and we’ll be OK.”

Morgan’s turnaround built on T-E-A-M

Despite Tuesday’s loss at East Hampton, the Morgan girls have come a long way from starts of 0-3 and 1-4. Before that 45-23 outcome against the Bellringers, coach Caitlin Woods’ Huskies turned their season around by winning eight straight.

“I think the team is really starting to play together,” said Woods, whose regular rotation includes three sophomores (point guard Maeve Madura, 5-foot-8 Ava Johnson and 5-9 Victoria O’Neill) and three juniors (Caeley Ayer, Katie Martin and Sofie Passante). “The talent and skill have been there, but playing as a unit has been a work in progress. I think now it’s coming at a good time.”

Sophomore Maeve Madura has made tremendous strides as Morgan’s floor general this season. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Morgan was guided the last two years by do-everything guard Catie Donadio. Where the 2021 Shoreline Player of the Year provided the bulk of the scoring, the Huskies get across-the-board offensive production this season.

“Not only are we getting multiple scoring contributions a night,” said Woods, “but we are starting to be more dominant on the boards. Ava Johnson and Katie Martin have been incredibly tough, each pulling down 10 or more in the last few games. Both have also been significant scoring threats.”

Meanwhile, Madura has come into her own as a tough floor general, while Passante continues to build herself up on both ends of the floor. And, of course, there’s Ayer, who’s among the best all-around players in the conference and who Woods credited as critical to the team’s win streak.

“Maeve has been outstanding in controlling the backcourt and she’s proven herself to be an offensive and defensive threat,” Woods said. “Sofie is the ultimate workhorse who drives our team’s aggressive efforts, and she recently knocked down some big outside shots. And Victoria O’Neill has an outstanding knack for blocking shots, and she has boosted the team on defense and offense.

“Caeley is an all-around terrific player and athlete. I continue to be impressed with her ability to see the court. Her athletic prowess, skill level and basketball IQ create a heck of a weapon for our team.”

Hoops to nuts

**Westbrook senior Jami Sacco is 11 points away from the 1,000 mark and could get there Tuesday at home against Old Lyme (5:30). Sacco was held to 9 points in Wednesday’s win over Hale-Ray, with the Noises playing a box-and-one and holding Sacco well below her season scoring average.

**Enfield High has stepped up to host both the boys’ and girls’ CCC tournaments. The original plan for the 16-team tourneys was the higher-seed team hosting all but the championship games, which tells me the conference had a tough time finding volunteers. Kudos to Enfield for raising its hand to run the show. After the first round (1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, and so on), quarterfinal/semifinal/championship games will be played there. The girls are up first (Feb. 19, 22 and 24).

**Save the dates for the Shoreline tournaments. The top eight seeds make it, with first-round and semifinal games at the higher seed. Girls — Feb. 19, 22 and 25. Boys — Feb. 26, March 1 and 4. The girls final will be held at a neutral site, while the boys championship returns to Polson Middle School in Madison.

**Middletown has increased indoor capacity for winter sports from 50 percent to 75 percent. Just in time for more fans to, a) take in the homestretch of the girls basketball team’s best season in years, and b) see the boys team host No. 1 Bristol Central on Feb. 14.

**Toughest week ahead: Could it be the Middletown girls (13-2), with games Monday through Thursday? At least 3 of the 4 are at home. Or the Cromwell girls (11-2), who host East Hampton on Tuesday, go to Valley Regional on Thursday and North Branford on Friday, and then host Canton on Saturday? Several more teams are feeling the effects of a crammed final two weeks because of early-season postponements.

**H-K coach Brett Cavalieri’s viewpoint after facing some of the better Shoreline teams this season: “Cromwell executed what it wanted to do against us the best. They are a very difficult matchup. Physically, the most challenging team is Morgan. From a complexity standpoint, East Hampton showed us the most different looks.”

**Finally, Old Lyme Unified Sports, coached by Andrew Tyrol, participated in a recent tournament against teams from Cromwell, Hale-Ray, Valley Regional and host Westbrook. Top performers in Old Lyme’s 3-game stretch included Peter Kuhn with 24 points, Parker Holland with 10 points and Henry Boremski with 7, including a deep 3-pointer that had the gym rocking. “It was a day filled with sportsmanship, competitiveness and teamwork,” Tyrol said.

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