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06/05/2022 12:00 AM

North Branford Wins Seventh-Straight Shoreline Title, Advances to Class S Semifinals

The North Branford softball team captured its seventh-straight Shoreline Conference title with a 7-2 win against Old Lyme in the tournament final at Morgan on May 26. The Thunderbirds went on to notch victories in their first three games of the Class S State Tournament to make it to the semifinal round. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Sound

After losing its first three games of the season and then having no players make the All-Shoreline Conference First Team, the North Branford softball squad entered this year’s Conference Tournament with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. The Thunderbirds used that motivation to their advantage by claiming their seventh-straight Shoreline title and then carried that momentum into the Class S State Tournament, where they won their first three games to make it to the semifinals.

North Branford defeated Old Lyme by a 7-2 score in the Shoreline Conference Tournament final on May 26. The T-Birds went on to earn wins versus Wolcott Tech (12-0), Civic Leadership (22-0), and Shepaug Valley (9-2) in the first three rounds of states to advance to a semifinal game against Coventry with an overall record of 19-7.

“I wanted them to be exactly there. I wanted them to be playing their best ball by the end of the season,” Head Coach Nick DeLizio said. “The last week and a half of the regular season was a good test for us. We played some tough teams. Our experience playing in those kinds of games definitely helped us. We were a little motivated. We didn’t get the respect we thought we would get. They were ready. They wanted to win more than ever.”

Following wins over Coginchaug and Haddam-Killingworth in the first two rounds, 5th-seeded North Branford played No. 3 seed Old Lyme in the championship game of the Shoreline Conference Tournament at The Morgan School. Old Lyme took a 2-1 lead in the first inning, but freshman Lexi Falcioni hit a 2-run home run in the top of the second to give the T-Birds a 3-2 advantage.

Senior captain Bella Hills followed up with a 2-run homer in the third inning to boost North Branford’s lead to 5-2. Hills and Falcioni drive home runs in the fifth and sixth innings, respectively, to lead the Thunderbirds to a 7-2 victory and their seventh-consecutive Shoreline Conference crown.

Sophomore Kiley Mullins pitched a complete-game 4-hitter with 10 strikeouts for North Branford in the win. In addition to the 2 hits and 3 RBI apiece for Hills and Falcioni, senior captain Gianna DePino, sophomores Natalia Lucibello and Lindsey Onofrio, and freshman Adriana Hills all had hits for Coach DeLizio’s club.

“We faced a good pitcher, but we made adjustments. We faced her earlier in the season and, while we won, there wasn’t much offense. We worked on a different approach,” said DeLizio. “Our girls’ bats were getting hot. They wanted it, and they were there. We made some of the best defensive plays I’ve ever seen in my time coaching. We made great defensive plays all tournament and backed our pitchers up.”

Although his team started the season at 0-3, DeLizio knew that North Branford would bounce back. DeLizio said that the T-Birds’ previous experience in postseason games proved crucial in helping them win the latest in a long line of Shoreline titles. In fact, North Branford’s win against Old Lyme in the final marked its 21st-straight victory in the conference tourney. While others might have doubted the Thunderbirds, Coach DeLizio feels proud to see how they’ve responded with their performance in the postseason.

“It shows that we’re resilient and that we can face adversity. We started out 0-3 and people were counting us out, but I wasn’t worried. I knew we were going to grow as a team,” DeLizio said. “They played their best ball at the right time. Experience matters. The girls were hungry and played with a bit of a chip on their shoulder this season.”

On the heels of winning Shorelines, North Branford entered the Class S State Tournament as the No. 15 seed and posted a 12-0 shutout in 6 innings over No. 18 seed Wolcott Tech in a first-round home game on May 31. Mullins tossed a no-hitter in which she allowed just 1 walk and struck out 10. Adriana Hills had 2 hits and 3 RBI, while senior Lauren Ackerman and Lucibello both had 2 hits with 2 RBI.

In the second round, North Branford hit the road to face No. 2 seed Civic Leadership and came away with a 22-0 victory on June 1. Lucibello had a monster game with 4 hits, including 2 home runs, to go with 10 RBI on the day. As a team, the T-Birds pounded out 27 hits and 5 home runs, including blasts from Adriana Hills, Ackerman, and senior Nichole Gomez.

Mullins and sophomore Gianna Fico combined on another no-hitter for North Branford. Mullins threw the first 4 innings, striking out 9, and then Fico came in to pitch the final frame and close out the win.

On June 3, the T-Birds were back on the road to take on No. 7 seed Shepaug Valley in the quarterfinal round of the Class S bracket. That day marked North Branford’s senior trip, so the rest of the team had to drive an hour to pick up the seniors at Lake Compounce in Bristol and then take another long trek to make the game at Shepaug’s home field in Washington.

North Branford was hardly fazed by the logistics of this situation. The Thunderbirds scored 6 runs in the third inning and held a 7-2 lead after four. The T-Birds tacked on 2 more runs in the sixth and went on to notch a 9-2 victory that sent the team into the semis.

Mullins went the distance on a 2-hitter with 10 K’s for North Branford. Bella Hills, Adriana Hills, Ackerman, and junior Tess Juniver all had 2 hits, while DePino had 1 hit with 3 RBI.

“That Shepaug win was more than just a win. Some of the girls were on the bus for over two and a half hours. We were trying to get our focus in,” said Coach DeLizio. “The good thing about it is we were seasoned. We were able to settle down and settle in. Playing those out-of-conference and tough Shoreline Conference games really set us up for success in that game.”

North Branford is playing No. 3 seed Coventry in the semifinals of the Class S State Tournament on Tuesday, June 7 at 4 p.m. at West Haven High School. With a victory, the Thunderbirds would advance to face the winner of top-seeded Cromwell and No. 5 Old Lyme—both Shoreline Conference foes—for the title on either Friday, June 10 or Saturday, June 11.

On paper, the 2022 campaign may seem like a typical season for the North Branford softball team. Once again, the Thunderbirds have captured the Shoreline Conference crown and are now in the midst of another deep run in states. However, Coach DeLizio said that North Branford’s resiliency stands out this year. In spite of some early struggles, the team has persevered. For DeLizio, the T-Birds’ resilience and overall belief in each other is what’s making this year’s team shine on the diamond.

“The one word is resiliency. Never starting off a season 0-3 before, we worked through a lot,” DeLizio said. “We hit a rough patch when we first started, but they were resilient. They took it one game at a time, and they finally came together as one.

“The girls found a way to pull themselves together and play the best ball at the best time. They were always there for each other,” DeLizio said.

The North Branford softball team’s roster features senior captains Bella Hills, Hanna Senerchia, and Gianna DePino; seniors Lauren Ackerman and Nichole Gomez; junior Tessa Juniver; sophomores Kiley Mullins, Lindsey Onofrio, Gabrielle Senerchia, Natalia Lucibello, and Gianna Fico; and freshmen Adriana Hills, Julianna Onofrio, Gabriella Bigio, Lexi Falcioni, and Lily Ardito.

Sophomore Kiley Mullins pitched a complete game when the T-Birds defeated Old Lyme in the Shoreline Conference championship and then contributed to a pair of no-hitters to help the team advance to the Class S state semifinals. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Sound
Freshman Lexi Falconi hit a 2-run homer that gave North Branford the lead for good in its 7-2 victory over Old Lyme in the Shoreline Conference title bout. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Sound