CROMWELL - Junior Mya Villard scored eight of her game-high 13 points in the first six minutes of Cromwell’s season opener Dec. 10 and keyed a 7-0 run that pushed the Panthers out to a 10-2 lead over visiting Coginchaug. Geanna Williams then came in for Villard and scored a three-point play in her first varsity minutes to make it 13-3 as the initial period waned.
“A lot of people are going to focus on Mya this season,” head coach Kelly Maher said after her team stood at 1-0 overall and in Shoreline Conference action after its 55-27 victory over the Blue Devils. “She had some easy baskets in the beginning and then Coginchaug really started focusing on her, which freed up some other people.”
Fellow sophomores Nikki Bitinaitis and Cheyenne Salafia then joined Williams in serving notice that the Panthers have a variety of weapons and aren’t afraid to use them.
The 5’6” Bitnaitis was integral to the 10-0 spurt that gave Cromwell a hefty 25-3 advantage, setting up buckets by senior captain Nicole Rojas and Williams before hitting one of two free throws and dialing up a long distance basket. Back-to-back treys from backcourt mate Salafia made it 31-7 heading into halftime.
Cromwell, which had at least one run in each period and finished the game with six, never saw its lead threatened. Consecutive buckets from junior forward Alyssa Wright ballooned the home team’s advantage to 37-13 in the third quarter.
Coginchaug strung together its lone run (8-0) midway through the final chapter. Larissa Cade’s three-point play and a pair of buckets from Naomi Rinaldo, including one from behind the arc, cut into Cromwell’s 32-point margin to make it a 49-25 ball game.
Rinaldo finished with a dozen points while Cade added 10 for the 0-1 Blue Devils.
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Janelle Harrison drew a lot of attention. This year I think we can spread it out and it’s going to be difficult for teams to focus on just one of our players. It’s a completely different look for us. We have a lot of different people who can do a lot of different things.
“Geanna played jayvee last year and she sat the varsity bench. She worked hard over the summer and has come a long way. Geanna put in the time and it’s paying off for her. She’s doing a lot of the little things that we need from her.”
Williams admitted to a case of nerves in her first varsity game.
“Tonight was surreal. I was so nervous. I’ve never really had this much pressure. Everyone was rooting for me and they were loud.
“I think we still have stuff to improve on but we’re coming along. We’ve only had six practices, but for six practices, I think we showed we can work well as a team.
At halftime, coach told us to come out as strong as we did in the first quarter, to keep working together as a team and to keep our lead, which we expanded on. She told me to keep working hard and posting up,” Williams continued.
“Our five upper class players are good teachers. They can tell me what I can improve on because they’ve been in my position before. They can help make me a better player,” said Williams, who had a large and vocal contingent of family in the stands for her varsity debut.
“For the most part, I liked our man defense tonight,” Maher noted. “At times we broke down, but overall I thought we did a nice job of getting out on their shooters and preventing the drive. It’s early on so there’s still a lot to work on.
“Nicole’s the one that gets the team ready. She makes sure everyone is in the right place and knows what to do,” Maher said of her floor general Rojas, who’s committed to attend Stonehill and play basketball. “That’s really making a difference for the younger players because they look to Nicole for leadership, and without leadership, we’re not able to do a lot of things.
“We expect our juniors [Emma Belcourt, Araya Lessard, Wright and Villard' alt='sports corner' title='sports corner'>
to step up even more. Some of them had different roles last year and now we’re expecting a lot more from them so it’s still a learning curve.
“Our sophomores have come a long way. Nikki came in tonight, gave us energy and did a great job. Cheyenne hit some threes for us when we needed them and Theresa [Quinn, guard' alt='sports corner' title='sports corner'>
gave us some great defensive minutes. The more this team plays together the better we’ll be as time goes on,” said Maher.
“We look to get better each game. I’d like us to be able to play a complete game. Right now we’re not there. We’re still young and trying to figure out who’s going to do what, so as time goes on, I’d like to see different people stepping up and taking over the game. We also need to work on our zone defense, our passing and rebounding.
“We want to make the state tournament and we want to be in the Shoreline tournament. We’re also trying to set little goals in terms of how many points the other team will score. Tonight we wanted to hold Coginchaug below 32.
“Morgan has all five starters back,” Maher said of the team that dealt Cromwell both of its losses during last season’s 22-2 finish, including a 50-39 defeat in CIAC Class M semi-final state tournament action. “East Hampton has experience and I think Coginchaug will get better as times goes on, so we’re going to see a different team at the end of the season.”
A total of seven Panthers scored in Saturday’s Shoreline Conference matchup at Haddam-Killingworth, with Cromwell bridging a 12-8 first-quarter deficit en route to the 54-42 victory.
Villard and Williams tied for team-high honors with 14 points each, followed by nine from Belcourt, eight from Rojas and six from Lessard. Hallie Serbent scored more than half of H-K’s points, finishing with a game-high 23, including a 13-16 outing at the charity stripe.