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CROMWELL — Basketball questions, please.
The East Hampton girls basketball team on Friday night preferred to accentuate the positive things that have transpired on the court in 2023. Totally understandable for a program sideswiped by the benching of its head coach.
The Bellringers have won almost every time out in the six-plus weeks since Shaun Russell was placed on administrative leave for shoving one of his own players during a game. Russell’s return to the sideline this season appears more and more unlikely with each passing day.
Yet East Hampton basketball and Russell are so intertwined that the players couldn’t talk hoops after Friday’s win over Cromwell without mentioning Russell, who first drew up a winning culture 26 seasons and 400-odd wins ago.
This was the scenario after East Hampton improved to 17-1 with a 44-37 victory over the Panthers. The win locked in the Bellringers as the top seed in the upcoming Shoreline Conference tournament. With wins in their final two games, they also would clinch the top seed in the CIAC Class M tournament.
Beating the Panthers on their home floor evened things up between the rivals. Shortly after Russell was barred from coaching pending an investigation, East Hampton struggled at home in a 38-29 loss to their chief rival.
“That was our first game really without him,” said junior guard Jackie Russell (no relation).
“We were just like a mess without him. No one was in the right head space that day,” she said. “We weren’t playing our East Hampton Bellringer basketball. We kind of just fell apart and weren’t executing, we weren’t playing as a team. This was a big game for us to redeem ourselves.”
“We’re doing this for him,” sophomore point guard Liana Salamone said.
In Russell’s absence, East Hampton has found just the right caretaker in Allyson Smith, who played for him from 2001-2005 and has steadied this latest talented, cohesive group of Bellringers.
“She truly volunteered and stepped up to help out our girls in a difficult situation,” East Hampton principal Eric Verner said. “We’re both pleased and lucky to have her.”
In a stellar four-year career as a Bellringer, Smith scored 1,444 points, accumulated 300-plus steals and earned All-Shoreline and All-State distinction. Seven years ago, she was inducted into East Hampton’s hall of fame.
“At the end of the day, the East Hampton program is my life,” she said. “This is my family. It’s an opportunity to support what matters to me. I just stepped in and offered my help.”
Smith went on to play at Southern Connecticut. She was on the roster as a freshman when the Owls won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2007 and averaged double figures in scoring as a junior and eventual senior captain.
Friday’s game in front of a full, loud house at Jake Salafia Gymnasium stirred the nostalgia of her playing days. She’s been totally comfortable in the role, too. Until recently, she was the head coach at Rocky Hill for eight seasons.
“There was a lot to this win,” said Smith, who is in the early stages of a successful career in marketing. “This was a big one. Cromwell-East Hampton is a long-time rivalry back to when I played. Cromwell is an incredible program. You don’t have to get up to play this type of game in this type of environment, which is incredible.”
The Bellringers held leads of 16-7 after one quarter and 25-12 at halftime. Jackie Russell drained four 3-pointers (two set up by Salamone) and scored 15 points in the first half. She finished with five 3’s and a game-high 20 points, while Salamone put up 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
Cromwell trailed by seven entering the fourth quarter and was within two possessions of tying the game with 47 seconds left, but East Hampton pulled the ball out and the Panthers couldn’t score again.
Having won 12 straight, the Bellringers are clearly in a comfort zone under Smith. With the postseason ahead, they’re also a bit restless. The program is 90-6 in the regular season since 2018-19 but hasn’t won a state title.
“Unfinished business, I agree,” Smith said. “Hey, it’s one day at a time. Coach Russell has built an incredible program and we’re hoping to (at least) get back to where we were last year.”
This was the semifinal round in Class M, where the Bellringers lost to Bacon Academy 30-26. The two could meet again — Bacon just finished its season at 17-3 and is in the running for the No. 2 seed.
“We want to win the whole thing,” Salamone said.
Anthony DeFilio, an assistant coach with the Coginchaug /East Hampton/Hale-Ray football program for the last six seasons, was named head coach on Thursday.
Coginchaug has churned through head coaches – DeFilio is now the fifth since 2015 – and needs to make this work. Mike Eagle coached the Blue Devils in 2021 and 2022 but stepped down after a 1-9 season to focus on his family.
Maybe the best thing about DeFilio’s hiring is his 14-year involvement with the youth program, which incorporates three towns. A strong connection and that type of continuity is crucial toward building a successful program at Coginchaug.
“There aren’t many people with the passion of Anthony DeFilio,” Coginchaug athletic director Todd Petronio said. “He’s a champion of all kids.”
In a statement, DeFilio said he envisions “a culture of football from the youth level through the high school level that promotes a unified understanding of fair play, fundamental football skills and team camaraderie.”
From the week gone by in high school basketball:
** Middletown junior guard Shalyn Smith scored 22 points and senior Jada Bryant had 11 to power the Blue Dragons to a 56-36 win at Maloney. Middletown is 10-9 and finishes the regular season on Monday at Berlin ahead of the CIAC Class LL tournament.
** It’s just a given that senior Anthony Parker will lead Xavier in scoring. On Friday, he had 30 points and Aidan Driscoll scored 23 as the Falcons (13-4) walloped Career 87-40. Parker was coming off a 28-point game in Xavier’s 82-65 upset of Wilbur Cross. Xavier’s final home game of the regular season is Friday against West Haven.
** Portland put up 84 points — 33 from 3-point range — in its Friday win over Westbrook. Harrison Collins led the Highlanders with 24 points, while Austin Vess and Joe Rusczyk added 16 apiece. Portland is 13-4 with three games left and aiming for the No. 1 or 2 seed in the Shoreline tournament. Brandon Naccarato scored 30 points for Westbrook.
** Andrew Crayton had 22 points and eight rebounds and Haddam-Killingworth teammate Blake Kamoen put 11 points and 12 rebounds in the Cougars’ 57-48 home win over Valley Regional. The Cougars were 17 of 20 from the free-throw line.
** Liana Salamone had another 30-point game for East Hampton, scoring 32 as the Bellringers beat Morgan 57-26.
** Brady Lynch led East Hampton with 19 points and the Bellringers outscored Morgan 21-9 in the fourth quarter to pull out a 61-59 victory.
** Mia Poturnicki scored 15 points in Coginchaug’s 50-27 win over Old Saybrook. The Blue Devils look like a lock for the No. 4 seed in the Shoreline tournament.
** Kenzie Purdell of Hale-Ray scored a season-high 23 points in the Noises’ 54-38 win over Old Lyme.
** Kylie Lake had a 29-point night for Old Saybrook in its 52-26 win over Old Lyme.
** Under first-year coach Michael Brady, Coginchaug qualified for state tournament play for the first time since the 2018-19 season with a 61-49 win over Hale-Ray. Jayson Penney posted his second triple-double in as many weeks: 18 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Preston Mennone added 17 points. The Blue Devils could finish .500 with wins at Old Lyme (Tuesday) and home versus East Windsor (Friday).
Paul Augeri is a freelance writer for the Middletown Press.