The East Haven girls basketball program will be making its first appearance in a state championship final when the second-seeded Yellowjackets take the floor Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I think it means a lot to community at large,” East Haven coach Anthony Russell said. “We’ve heard about the great boys teams at East Haven back in the day. The girls never got their due. Now we’re here. I’ve heard from a lot of people I haven’t heard from in years who have ties to East Haven who will be there to support us and are excited for us. Even for those who will not be there, they will be rooting from afar.”
For Career, it will be the team’s sixth trip to the state finals. For head coach Steve Bethke, it’s his ninth trip.
“You get to see the look on the kids’ faces when the bus pulls up underneath the stadium. They walk out, go in the locker room and see the closed circuit TV on with the game going on before them,” said Steve Bethke, who took Sacred Heart Academy to the finals three times (1992-94).
The two Southern Connecticut Conference rivals will be meeting for the third time to decide the Class M state championship Saturday at 3 p.m. in Uncasville.
East Haven (23-3) won the first two matchups, 59-25 at Career on Feb. 1, then a hotly-contested rematch in the SCC tournament quarterfinals, 56-54 on Feb. 17.
Who will win the Class M Girls Basketball Championship?
East Haven (24-3)
Total Response: 165 Votes
“Obviously thought Career could be one of those teams that came out of that other side (of the other bracket),” Russell said. “I expect it to be competitive, filled with a lot of emotion on both sides, and hopefully, we can put it together.”
East Haven is led by forward Kyle Schlottman, the SCC Player of the Year, who didn’t play in the last game against Career due to injury, and guard Makenzie Helms.
“I felt at the beginning of the year they were as talented as anyone in the state,” Bethke said about East Haven.
East Haven reached the SCC tournament final for the first time also, losing to Mercy, and had a non-conference schedule that included New London, East Lyme and Bassick to prepare the ’Jackets for this run.
“All of it definitely prepared us,” Russell said. “Especially the SCC tournament and the non-conference games prepared us for the physicality and longevity of playing in the state tournament.”
It’s been an up-and-down season. The Panthers are the only team to beat Mercy, yet lost eight regular-season games.
Led by Ky’Jae Hargrove and Ciara Little, the Panthers rode the No. 20 seed to Saturday’s final, knocking off two league champions — Kolbe Cathedral (SWC) and Cromwell (Shoreline) — along the way.
“You always think you think can make a run have belief in your kids and your system,” Bethke said. “It’s not easy to string those kind of games together. The tough thing about being in a tough bracket is you have to play well every night. You can’t have an average night and hope to get by. We are playing as well as we have played all year, maybe even a little better.”
CLASS M Championship
No. 2 EAST HAVEN vs. No. 20 CAREER
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville
On The Air/Web: NFHS Network (subscription required)
Records: East Haven (23-3); Career (17-9)
Championship game appearances: This is East Haven’s first appearance in a state final. Career is 3-2, last playing, and winning, in 2011.
Players to watch: Kylie Schlottman, East Haven: Dominating presence in the post should put up a double-double in her final game; Ky’Jae Hargrove, Career: Will try to put the Panthers on her back one more time.
What to look for: East Haven will be trying to beat Career for the third time this season. With Schlottman in the post and Makenzie Helms running the show, the Yellowjackets feature two dominant players at their position. Schlottman missed the last game between the two teams, an overtime win in the SCC quarterfinals for the Easties. Career has been up and down all season, but has put together a fine run in this tournament, knocking off a pair of conference champions in the opening two rounds on the road: Kolbe Cathedral (SWC) and Cromwell (Shoreline). The pressure is on East Haven as the higher seed to finish the deal here.
You should know: Career is the only team to beat Mercy this season, 58-50 on Feb. 6.