Pictured: H-K senior attacker Aaron McLeod outraces a Cromwell defender downfield with the ball during Saturday’s lacrosse game in Cromwell. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

By Danny Atkinson
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

CROMWELL – The key to Haddam-Killingworth’s success early this season has been its aggressive man-to-man defense. The Cougars entered their game at Cromwell on Saturday having allowed just 17 goals in five matches and kept up that level of play against the Panthers.

H-K jumped out to a 5-0 lead midway through the second quarter. After Cromwell scored twice, the Cougars again clamped down defensively and went on an offensive flurry, ultimately winning 11-2. They improved to 5-1, while Cromwell remains winless at 0-6.

H-K earned its largest win of the season and scored in double-digits for the first time. The Cougars are first in the Shoreline Conference after winning the league title in 2021 for the first time, and tied for second in the CIAC Class S standings with multiple teams. Cromwell is last in conference play and allowed its opponent to score in double-digits for the fifth straight match.

In the first half, the H-K defense limited the Panthers to short possessions and consistently forced turnovers and errant passes, with the offense frequently scooping up any groundballs. When Cromwell had its few good looks at the goal, sophomore goalie Braden Civiello was there to stop the shot. That airtight defense allowed the Cougars to dominate offensive possession and get great scoring opportunities.

Cromwell first-year head coach Fred Felerico discussed how the depth of the H-K defense has allowed it to be so dominant.

“We have the type of athletes that allow us to constantly play man-to-man. Our goalie is great. Every single one of our defensemen, especially Sam Young and Matteo Piacenti as well as LSM (long-stick midfielder) Jack Insalaco (all three are seniors) have been strong for us, and our defensive midfielders do the same,” Felerico said. “And Nate Kelly (senior) has been excellent off the bench.”

Senior attacker Corey Phipps and junior midfielder Nolan Braren were the offensive linchpins for H-K, combining for 10 goals (Phipps 6, Braren 4).

Braren, who had three goals in the first half, opened the scoring 3:32 in by beating the goalie right in front of the net, as Alex Phipps earned the assist for a difficult pass. Braren scored his second with 2:55 remaining, making a memorable spinning move to get past his defender and open for the shot. The Cougars did a good job in the quarter of moving the ball to get open shots on goal.

In the second, neither offense consistently put pressure on the defense. The Cougars took advantage when they had their few quality scoring opportunities however, getting goals from Braren and the Phipps brothers to take a 5-0 lead into halftime. Cromwell continued to struggle with the physicality of the H-K defense and was beaten to a majority of the ground balls.

Cromwell’s decision to switch to a zone defense at the beginning of the second half made it more difficult for H-K to move the ball and obtain accurate shots, and the Panthers began to attack the goal more successfully. Logan Mure broke through with their first goal 2:50 in. After a goal by Braren midway through the quarter, Cole Brisson answered by beating Civiello low to make it 6-2 with 3:50 remaining in the third. The Cougars regained their composure however, and Corey Phipps stepped up to put the game away.

The senior had three goals in the final 1:31 of the third to make the score 9-2. He demonstrated his shooting accuracy and athleticism against defenders on each. Phipps added two goals in the fourth (the final one assisted by McLeod) to give H-K the nine-goal win.

“When they switched to zone defense, they didn’t do anything to cover me and so it was easy to sneak up into the crease and catch passes to score the goal,” Phipps said.

Felerico was not thrilled with his team’s slow offensive start but was satisfied with the performance overall.

“It kind of looked like we were waking up at the beginning, but we finished strong. We figured out the zone and put everything together offensively. Their reluctance to abandon the zone probably helped us.”

The H-K offense has been inconsistent and entered Saturday averaging just under six goals. Felerico discussed what he’s seen from the attackers and midfielders.

“The offense hasn’t been as good as I’d like it to be, but it’s a work in progress. We’ve dealt with having to shuffle the lineup, so we’re having to focus on reviewing a lot of things and getting in synch on the field. It will help us to get more reps and value our time in practice, as we have a small roster,” Felerico said.

Phipps discussed the offense and how the team can improve as a while in the coming weeks.

“We’ve got to make sure to get everyone involved and find plays we can score on. We have to get a better understanding of how to run all our plays in games.”

Felerico said that Braren and Alex Phipps have been the team’s most consistent offensive players and Young and Piacenti his best defensive guys, and also singled out the performances of Insalaco and Civiello.

His coach said fundamentals that can be improved include making the correct slides on defense, improving offensive reads, and clearing the ball more efficiently.

Felerico said that conference play will be very competitive and multiple teams are capable of winning the league. He cited Morgan, North Branford and Valley Regional as particularly strong teams. H-K beat Morgan but lost to North Branford.

The Cougars will host Morgan (5-2) on Thursday. Cromwell will play at Valley (3-4) on Thursday and host Morgan on Saturday.

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