Best on the Shoreline!
It's time to nominate your favorites for the 2021 Best on the Shoreline Awards!
Senior captain Taylor Salato and the East Haven girls’ basketball squad overcame a slow start and a team quarantine to notch five victories during the shortened winter season. Salato made the All-SCC East Division Team on behalf of the Yellowjackets. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Erin Curran earned All-SCC East Division accolades by virtue of her performance with the East Haven girls’ basketball team this year. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Junior Kate Pycela and the Yellowjackets finished their campaign by claiming a 55-51 victory versus crosstown rival Branford in their finale. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Juliana Iovino logged her fair share of varsity minutes for the East Haven girls’ basketball team as a freshman this season. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
The East Haven girls’ basketball team had to wait a couple of months to begin its season and then had to sit out a few weeks due to a quarantine at the end of its campaign. Through all of the uncertainty and adversity, Head Coach Anthony Russell saw his squad display great resilience that helped the team put together another solid season this winter.
After the start of the season was initially delayed by the CIAC, East Haven had to wait for the final verdict as to whether basketball would be played at all this year. When the Yellowjackets heard word that they would be allowed back on the court, Coach Russell’s athletes were beyond enthusiastic.
“A lot of these kids hadn’t played any organized sports for 9 or 10 months. There was relief and excitement that we were going to have something,” said Russell, whose team finished with a record of 5-6. “We knew it wouldn’t have been the same as years past, but we were happy with the decision.”
East Haven got out to slow start, losing five of its first six games of the year. The team was playing shorthanded while dealing with numerous injuries during the early goings of the campaign. However, following those struggles, the Yellowjackets started to find their stride by winning their next three games with victories against Hamden (47-39), Lyman Hall (56-35), and Guilford (60-53).
Coach Russell said that the Easties started to function more effectively as a unit once they had all their players back in action. Even more so than offensive or defensive production, Russell felt that the Yellowjackets’ best attribute was their ability to keep believing that they would turn their season around.
“Both on the court and off the court, they were resilient. We stressed patience. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but while we’re here, let’s at least take advantage of anything that we get,” Russell said. “The players seemed to respond. I saw tremendous growth over a short period of time.”
Entering the home stretch of the regular season, East Haven was forced to go into quarantine and saw two games against Branford get postponed. The good news was that the Yellowjackets were able to return for the SCC Division I Tournament, where they played a back-and-and forth matchup with Shelton that ultimately ended in a 40-38 defeat. After SCCs, East Haven made up one of its games versus Branford and defeated the Hornets 55-51 in its season finale.
“At the time we had to go in quarantine, we won four out of our last five. We had won three in a row and were really starting to click,” said Russell. “When we got back into the SCC Tournament, we were excited and relieved that our quarantine ended. We got in the gym and went over Shelton’s personnel. It’s a tough place to play. We were right there. We had a shot to win it, but I was really proud of the girls for competing as much as they did.”
East Haven was led by three senior captains in forward Taylor Salato, along with guards Erin Curran and Brooke Mortimer. All three athletes played for the Yellowjackets the past four seasons and were the last remaining members from their 2018 Class M state championship team.
Salato and Curran both earned All-SCC East Division honors for their performance this year. While he wishes that his seniors had a longer sendoff season, Coach Russell said that all three players did a great job of leading the team and cultivating the program’s culture.
“I’ve talked to the three of them numerous times throughout the season. I feel bad, because it wasn’t the senior season I envisioned for them. I thought that we could have been right there at the end of the year in the SCC and state tournament,” Russell said. “But they were resilient leaders. They came in every day and worked hard. They were able to be out there with their peers and lead their team. I hope this teaches them that nothing is guaranteed—in basketball and life.”
The three captains were the only seniors on East Haven’s roster. With 17 of the 20 players in the program returning, Coach Russell feels hopeful that those athletes will be able to learn from what transpired this season, while growing as both basketball players and people. Russell added that he is looking to see who will put in the work during the offseason and be ready to come back to take on a larger role in 2022.
East Haven’s junior class includes guards Kate Pycela and Tanner Punzo, along with forward Teresa Vitello. The sophomores on the squad are guards Arielle Dupree, Gabriella Gaetano, Sydney Herard, Courtney Carvajal, Ivonne Vera, and Gabriella Milici, in addition to forward Alice Stettinger. The Yellowjackets’ freshman class features guards Gianna Castellano, Kelsey Murray, Aliana Stephens, and Mya Fenn, as well as forwards Juliana Iovino, Olivia Martin, and Seralyn Lendroth. The Yellowjackets’ starting five was Salato, Curran, Pycela, Dupree, and Iovino.
Russell, who has been a basketball coach for the past 22 years, said that the 2021 season was unlike anything he had ever experienced. After his team battled through extraordinary circumstances, Russell saw his passion for the sport grow that much stronger as he worked with a special collection of Yellowjackets.
“There is so much surrounding this year, not just in basketball, but life in general. The girls know they’re living in a historic moment right now, and the girls know that sometimes making history isn’t the most pleasant thing to do,” Russell said. “I’ll remember this team for how resilient and enthusiastic they were. They taught me a lot about putting one foot in front of another. I love teaching basketball. When I was out there with the girls, I forgot about the pandemic.”