MIDDLETOWN >> The girls high school basketball season gets underway tonight and somehow it seems like only yesterday that the Cromwell Panthers were raising the Class M state championship plaque high above their heads at The Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Panthers, who host Westbrook tonight (7 p.m.), had a dream season a year ago. They won their second straight Shoreline Conference championship – and third league crown in four years – with grinding, hard-fought wins against Coginchaug (semifinals) and Morgan (finals). Then, Cromwell reeled off state tournament victories against Classical Magnet, Rocky Hill, Kolbe Cathedral, and defending champion Weaver, who eliminated the Panthers in the semifinals the year before, before topping Notre Dame-Fairfield, 42-28, in the finals.
The Panthers not only captured the school’s first ever girls basketball state championship, but also finished a perfect 28-0.
“It was just a remarkable season,” said Cromwell coach Kelly Maher. “Looking back on it, it was a special year. They battled through sickness, foul trouble and injuries and won every game. It really wasn’t our goal to go undefeated. We just wanted to play well in our league, get better during the season and then play well in the league and state tournaments.”
It’s the same blueprint Maher is hoping to duplicate this year.
“It’s a new season,” said Maher, a former Panther now in her seventh season at the helm. “And we’re very young.”
The Panthers lose Kelly Flanigan, Lindsey Langenauer and Alexa Riley to graduation. All three were terrific performers who took turns making some big shots and even bigger defensive stops during Cromwell’s record-breaking season a year ago. Simply put, Flanigan, Langenauer and Riley are irreplaceable.
But Cromwell’s two returning seniors, along with a stellar sophomore class, make the Panthers one of the favorites again in the Shoreline.
Leading the way in 2013-14 are senior co-captains Janelle Harrison and Emily Appleby.
Harrison, a 6-foot forward who averaged 18 points per game last season, including a 13-point, 16-rebound performance against Notre Dame-Fairfield in the Class M championship game, is the reigning Shoreline Conference Player of the Year.
Harrison, who scored her 1000 career point during the Panthers 60-44 win against Weaver in the state semifinals, has already signed to play Division I basketball at the University of Hartford.
“Janelle’s improved,” said Maher. “She continues to grow in all aspects of the game. She’s developed a short jumper. She has a lot more confidence. She’s going to look to score and also get her teammates involved in the offense.”
Appleby, a 5-6 guard, is a three-year starter who will direct the Panthers offense from the all-important point guard position.
“Emily is like a coach on the floor,” said Maher. “She reads the defense. It’s nice to have experience there. Janelle and Emily have seen all types of defenses and they don’t get rattled. We’re also looking for them to mentor the younger players.”
Sophomores Mya Villard, Emma Belcourt, Araya Lessard and Alyssa Wright all saw varsity action a year ago. “And they all had some key moments last year,” Maher added. “They were bench players who came in and gave our starters a rest and they were all great at their roles. We’re expecting a lot more from them this year.”
Junior Marissa Ritter and junior guard Nicole Rojas, a Mercy transfer who will sit out the first 10 games, solidify the Panthers rotation.
Cromwell will travel to Clinton on Friday to battle SLC finalists Morgan. The Panthers defeated the Huskies, 44-33, in last year’s SLC championship game.
“We’re just going to take it one game at a time and look to grow and learn and to develop as the season goes on,” said Maher. “We’re hoping to be a different team in March than the one we are now.”
Last season was one of the few times – and you could almost count them all on one hand – in which the Portland girls basketball team failed to qualify for the state tournament under coach Nick Chaconis, who started the program in 1974-75.
“We didn’t have a strong year last season,” said Chaconis, whose club finished 4-16. “We had to deal with graduation and we battled injuries like all schools do. We got hit with everything all at once so it was one of those rebuilding years. We’re looking to take it a notch higher this year. I’m really excited to get going again.”
Portland travels to New Haven tonight (6 p.m.) for a SLC battle against Hyde and 1000 point scorer Trayneice Mims.
“The league is so strong,” said Chaconis, who guided Portland to a Class S state title in 2011 and has close to 550 career wins. “Hyde beat us twice last year so we’re hoping to get one from them.”
The Highlanders will be led by senior co-captains Jill McGrath and Brittney DiCioccio, and junior point guard Brooke Marconi. McGrath is an all-around player who can score from outside and inside. “They are our three main starters and we’re going to depend on them early in the year because we are very young,” said Chaconis.
Portland will be a guard-oriented team. Their strength will be their quickness and up-tempo style and Chaconis is hoping juniors Gariella Varela and Danielle Cote, sophomores Ruth Kelley, AnnaRose Zampano, Courtney Cote and freshman newcomers Micayla Kelley and Emma Fantoli will find a niche in the Highlanders rotation as the season progresses.
“It will be tough but our goal is to make the state tournament this year,” said Chaconis.