Morello hired to replace Maher at Cromwell girls basketball

Cromwell assistant coach Sal Morello talks with senior Alexa Riley during halftime during the Class M state championship game at Mohegan Sun in 2017.

Cromwell assistant coach Sal Morello talks with senior Alexa Riley during halftime during the Class M state championship game at Mohegan Sun in 2017.

Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

Sal Morello’s first autumn in 30 years away from the grueling, almost-daily grind of high school football will be filled by his kids’ sports endeavors, trips to Citi Field (maybe into October?) and a Heinz Field game between his Steelers and the Patriots.

He’ll also spend some of the downtime checking in with the girls basketball players at Cromwell High and their progress with a practice regimen and strength and conditioning.

Morello officially was hired last week to replace Kelly Maher as Cromwell’s varsity head coach. The two worked together for 13 of Maher’s 15 seasons, with Morello as head JV coach and lone varsity assistant. Under Maher, the Panthers won 315 games, eight Shoreline Conference titles and three CIAC Class M championships.

“Spending more time with my kids is a good thing for me,” said Morello, 53, “and I’m looking forward to this challenge, too. Being there for 13 years on the bench, I’ve watched closely and learned a lot, and I give Kelly a lot of credit for allowing me to coach and prepare for this. I understand the shoes that are being filled here. Her record is what it is. She’s done a great job, we’ve had terrific girls come through the program, and you just try to build on it.”

Maher stepped away from coaching after the Panthers’ 19-6 season, saying the demands of her job as Cromwell’s full-time athletic director were “the deciding factor.” She had a voice in the search for her successor and didn’t have to think too hard about who would be the best fit.

“We’ve both been in it a long time and I think we complemented each other really well,” Maher said. “And now it’s time for him to have his chance to move forward with the program. He’ll do a great job with it.”

As Cromwell’s JV coach, Morello was “focused strictly on player development” and getting JV players primed for the varsity level. Since the onset of COVID, Cromwell has seen a dip in the number of players in the program. Morello wants to reverse the trend.

“Being a head coach and an assistant are two different things,” he said. “Now I get to worry about the entire program, and we have to get the numbers up at the lower levels. I’m not sure of the number of incoming freshmen, but we’ve got just one returning sophomore next year, so an area of focus in the fall is getting girls out for basketball.”

Heading into the new season, Cromwell has a varsity roster of just 11, including six seniors and only one sophomore.

“We have a veteran group coming back that I’m very familiar with,” Morello said, “so this is not a whole new situation for me or the kids. They know me and know what my expectations will be, so it will be good for them. But we’ve got to get more bodies at the JV level to start building for the future. Our numbers are not what you’d think they would be with the success we’ve had the last 13 years.”

Cromwell’s top returning players are all seniors. Forward Jessica Grodzicki led the team in scoring (12.1 points per game) and steals (3.2). Guard/forward Nevaeh Clark, who averaged 10.3 points and 6.2 rebounds, will be a four-year starter. And forward Adela Cecunjanin averaged a double-double — 11.5 points and 11.2 rebounds.

Starting guards, incoming junior Cameryn Hickey and senior Grace Mikan, also will be back.

Players’ strength and conditioning heading into the season will be important, Morello said, because he wants them to play an up-tempo game. And he notes that Shoreline teams like champion East Hampton, Valley Regional, Morgan and Coginchaug have top players returning who are every bit as good as his veterans.

“The more I’m around basketball, the first thing that comes to mind is our conditioning,” he said, underscoring his football experience. “The style I want to play is going to require a tremendous amount of conditioning. I want to play fast and I want to press. In order to do that we have to be in great condition and have depth. Playing time for a lot of girls will be earned in practice.”

Morello, a longtime teacher of physical education and health at Middletown High, was familiar to the Cromwell sports scene even before he joined the basketball program.

When the school launched football in the new century, Morello was the Panthers’ first coach. They won 69 of 81 games in his seven seasons, including the 2008 Class S championship and four Pequot Conference titles.

He left for the opportunity to coach at Middletown, his alma mater, at a time when the program was foundering. He led the Blue Dragons to seven state playoff appearances in 12 seasons.

At Cromwell, the Panthers haven’t won a Shoreline Conference girls basketball title since 2019. Morello wants that streak to end, and he hopes whoever is hired as his JV coach is focusing on turning the tide as well.

“I don’t want just anybody,” he said. “It has to be somebody you can trust, someone you can work with, someone who is a good teacher of the game, so that when the girls get to the varsity level they have a good idea how to play. It’s about fundamentals and skill development. It’s a role I took very seriously.”