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Senior captain Kylie Schlottman and the East Haven girls’ basketball team are on their way to the Class M State Tournament championship game after storming back for a 56-52 win over Rocky Hill in the semis. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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The East Haven girls’ basketball team is entering unchartered waters as the Yellowjackets will play for their first state championship in program history when they take on Career in the Class M State Tournament final at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville this weekend.
The Easties, who are the No. 2 seed in the tourney, advanced to the title bout by walloping Wolcott 85-33 in the quarterfinals and then rallying for a 56-52 win versus Rocky Hill in the semis last week. They now have a record of 23-3 on the season.
“You have to pinch yourself sometimes, because it’s every high-school athlete and coach’s dream to get to a state championship or have the opportunity to win a state championship,” Head Coach Anthony Russell said. “We’re digesting it now. I gave them the weekend off, and we’re back to work on [March 11]. We have five or six days to prepare. It’s a great feeling that doesn’t come without worries as we have a formidable opponent in Career in front of us.”
Career is coached by Steve Bethke, an East Haven High School graduate who’s been coaching basketball in the area for many years, including a stint as head coach of the Yellowjackets’ girls’ basketball team. No. 20 seed Career (17-9) advanced to the Class M final by posting a 39-34 win versus No. 9 Weston in the semis.
The state final will mark the third time that East Haven and the Panthers are squaring off this year. The Yellowjackets routed Career 59-25 during the regular season on Feb. 1, but the second encounter was much closer, as East Haven needed overtime to pull off a 56-54 win against the Panthers in the SCC Tournament quarterfinals on Feb. 17. Easties’ senior captain Kylie Schlottman missed that game due to an injury.
“It dramatically changes the landscape when you don’t have the two-time SCC Player of the Year in the lineup,” Coach Russell said. “We’re going to have seven or eight days off, but [Career is] in the same boat as us. Our goal is to have practices mimic what a game will be like. We’re working them good, but allowing time for rest. Hopefully, we can make a run.”
After defeating both Woodland and Plainfield by 50-plus points in the first two rounds of states, East Haven hosted No. 23 seed Wolcott for a quarterfinal clash on March 5 and won big once again, this time by the final score of 85-33. Schlottman scored a game-high 17 points, while junior Makenzie Helms had 15 points for East Haven. Senior captain Olivia Coyle and sophomore Isabella Ragaini netted 14 points apiece, plus sophomore Alexis Pendziwater scored eight points in the win.
“I think with our pressure and athleticism, we wore teams down in the first few rounds. In the first three games, our average margin of victory was 52 points,” Russell said. “Our three previous games helped us in terms of keeping us fresh, but hurt us because we didn’t play in a close game.”
East Haven felt the effects of those blowout victories when it faced 6th-seeded Rocky Hill in the Class M semis at Plainville High School on March 9. In a nail-biting contest, the Terriers had the Yellowjackets on edge and held a 50-43 lead with five minutes remaining. However, East Haven closed the game on a 13-2 spurt to emerge victorious and seal its spot in the state final.
“I just watched the film, and I don’t think we played well for a majority of the game, and that’s a credit to Rocky Hill. They’re well-coached and have some talented kids. They change up their defense a lot, and that kept us off-balance,” Russell said. “I think we played well in spots, like the last four minutes of the first half and he final five minutes of the game. That was the deciding factor.”
Schlottman had 22 points, and Helms scored 18 points for the Yellowjackets in their come-from-behind win. With her team down by seven, Pendziwater canned a 3-pointer and then scored a quick basket in transition to put East Haven within striking distance. The Yellowjackets’ pressure defense forced Rocky Hill into making some mistakes and, on the other side of the floor, Schlottman, Helms, and Coyle all hit key free throws down the stretch to help their club come away with the victory.
“I didn’t sense any panic. We’ve been down before the entire game and came back to win. I think we have the personnel where if we can keep it close and keep our composure, we have a good chance to win, even when we don’t play our best game,” Coach Russell said. “When you’re down seven points with five minutes to play, you have to make some changes. I thought our pressure gave them problems, and they threw the ball away. We hit big shots and made some good stops. I thought we could isolate Kylie or Makenzie and get to the free-throw line, and that is exactly how it played out.”
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