The East Haven basketball team has seen its share of ups and downs the past few years. Most recently, a team that had just 10 wins in the first three years of the tenure of head coach Anthony Russell has quickly turned the corner.
The upside has seen 40 wins over the last two years and two consecutive SCC Quinnipiac Division titles. Life is good these days for the Yellowjackets.
“From a coaching perspective, it has been different all across the spectrum,” Russell said of the first few years at East Haven. “In the first three years, we were 10-50 as a program. After the third year, we qualified for the SCC and state tournaments in the fourth year.
“We have gradually improved the last two years and have won 40 games. We used to be that team trying to get to the next level. Now, we are looked at as one of the more talented teams. Teams come at you now. They play with more energy against you now. If we stay healthy and continue to work hard, we can have a successful season.”
For a team with two consecutive division titles, one would think is was mainly due to upper-class heavy teams. However, the senior-laden team just happens to be this year.
With the return of senior captains Olivia Coyle. Marley Herard, Haley Montesanto, Kylie Schlottman, and Jessica Stettinger, Russell and his staff were ecstatic entering this season. After all, the Yellowjackets also have two returning sophomores who logged a ton of minutes and made an impact last season in guards Isabella Ragaini and Alexis Pendziwater.
That, however, is not all Russell has to look forward to. Add to the mix junior guard Makenzie Helms, a transfer from Loomis Chaffee who was an All-New England selection and is being recruited by Yale, Penn, Wake Forest, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska and Syracuse to name a few. This East Haven team has the potential to do big things.
“With her transfer, that definitely changes the dynamic,” Russell said of Helms. “She is another viable option on offense and defense. She gets at it on both sides of the ball.”
The key Russell says is staying healthy, and the Yellowjackets were already dealt a harsh blow in the preseason when Coyle suffered a meniscus injury in her knee. Until she returns, the team’s depth, which also includes freshmen Erin Curran, Angelina Munoz, and Taylor Salato, will need to step up.
“She will not be back until the end of January at the earliest,” Russell said. “It’s tough losing one of your top players even before the first game.”
When healthy, this season’s East Haven squad can throw many different looks at opponents. Led by Coyle and Schlottman, opponents have much to be concerned about.
As a 5-foot-1 forward who was an All-SCC, All-Area and All-State selection a season ago, Schlottman averaged 19.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a junior. She started this season on the right foot, scoring 40 points in a 75-44 victory over Foran in the season opener.
Coyle, an All-SCC and All-Area selection last season, averaged 14.4 points and 3.2 assists per game. While Coyle and Schlottman played a large amount of minutes last season, Herard, Montesanto and Stettinger came off the bench and will now be expected to be leaders.
“All five of my seniors are captains and all bring something different to the team,” Russell said. “Kylie and Olivia were in scoring roles last season, while Marley, Haley, and Jessica were more of a supporting role last year. This year, that will change.”
Ragaini and Pendziwater return for their second seasons, coming off a year in which Ragaini scored 5.4 points and added 5.2 assists per game, while Pendziwater averaged 10.2 points per game and had a school record 53 3-pointers last year.
“Last year, there were a lot of question marks in terms of depth” Russell said. “We saw Bella (Ragaini) and Lexi (Pendziwater) in middle school, but we did not know the type of impact they would make. They came in and replaced graduated seniors. To have two freshmen and be successful and win 18 games, is a plus for us. With a year of experience, they can improve the team more.”
If that were not enough for opposing defenses to worry about, there is Helms, who contributed 15 points, five assists, and four steals per game as a sophomore.
“We need our players to do what they normally do,” Russell said. “We need to stay healthy. We have to broaden the spectrum of our offense. We can score from the perimeter and inside. We have depth. We will be playing up tempo. The synergy of these things have to happen.”
Russell and the Yellowjackets will face a tougher road as the coach has scheduled some tough non-conference games.
“I think that is definitely important,” Russell said. “We went outside of the league. We are playing more challenging teams. We want the girls to be challenged. I think the girls will benefit from it.”