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06/13/2022 12:00 AM

Thunderbirds Finish Season as Class S Runner-Up

Sophomore Kiley Mullins turned in a solid effort on the mound when the North Branford softball team faced Cromwell in the Class S state championship game. The Thunderbirds took a 3-0 loss to Cromwell in the contest at DeLuca Field on June 11. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Sound

On the heels of winning its seventh-straight Shoreline Conference title, the North Branford softball team advanced to the championship game of the State Tournament for the second year in a row last week. Although North Branford took a loss to Cromwell in the state final, Head Coach Nick DeLizio was impressed with his team’s senior leadership and the way that the T-Birds battled throughout the season.

No. 15 seed North Branford took on top-seeded Cromwell in the Class S State Tournament final at DeLuca Field in Stratford on June 11. The Thunderbirds lost to the Panthers by the final score of 3-0 to finish the 2022 season with an overall record of 20-8. This marked the fourth appearance in a state final for the T-Birds, who took a defeat to Seymour in last year’s Class M title game.

North Branford and Cromwell were scoreless through the first three innings of this year’s state final showdown. Cromwell got on the board with a 2-run home run in the fourth inning and then added insurance on a solo shot in the sixth to come away with the 3-0 victory. Senior captain Lauren Ackerman had the only hit for North Branford in the contest.

“To win games with one hit is very difficult. Cromwell’s pitcher kept the ball inside. We didn’t have great at-bats against her,” Coach DeLizio said. “We didn’t get aggressive in the count. We let some strikes go. We didn’t get enough baserunners to win. They’re a very sound defensive team, as well. We just didn’t have it offensively.”

Despite the loss, DeLizio was pleased with the T-Birds’ defense and the pitching performance of Kiley Mullins. A sophomore, Mullins tossed all 6 innings for North Branford, allowing 6 hits and striking out 6 batters.

Mullins also started for North Branford in the Class M championship game last season. Coach DeLizio said that she entered this year’s state final with a level head and was ready to compete. As Mullins moves through the program, Coach DeLizio believes that her performance versus Cromwell will pay dividends for the pitcher in future playoff games.

“Kiley was awesome on the mound. She pitched lights out. She only let up two home runs, and one of them would be a fly ball in 95 percent of the fields in Connecticut,” said DeLizio. “She had been there before and had great composure. She came out of the gates throwing hard and hitting spots. She was ready for the moment, and she’s only going to get better.”

For some teams, reaching a state final as the No. 15 seed might come as a bit of a shock, but that is hardly the case for the Thunderbirds. Coach DeLizio had his team played a tough schedule this year, including two matchups against SCC champion East Haven, in order to prepare for the rigors of the postseason. While he knew that might lead to a lower seed, DeLizio said that North Branford’s challenging schedule, both in and out of conference, helped the club get ready for another deep playoff run.

“The reason we got the No. 15 seed is because we’re playing difficult teams, not just in the Shoreline. We played East Haven twice. That’s how you build resiliency,” DeLizio said. “You want to see teams pitching and hitting at another caliber. We wanted to be prepared for this tournament. They used the motivation of what other teams think of us. We’re here to play the game. They took adversity and turned it into positive gameplay.”

North Branford had advanced to the Class S state final by earning a 4-2 win over No. 3 seed Coventry in a semifinal game on June 7. Coventry jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning and held the T-Birds scoreless until the fifth.

In the fifth inning, junior Tess Juniver drew a walk and then advanced to third when sophomore Gabrielle Senerchia reached on an error on a bunt. Ackerman followed by hitting a grounder that allowed Juniver to score the tying run when Coventry’s shortstop threw home.

Freshman Lexi Falcioni then reached on a bunt and wound up advancing to third on an error as both Senerchia and Ackerman scored, giving the Thunderbirds a 3-1 advantage. Falcioni later came home on a squeeze bunt from sophomore Lindsey Onofrio, making the score 4-1.

Coventry scored a run in the sixth inning, but North Branford was able to hang on for the 4-2 victory. Ackerman had the T-Birds’ only hit of the game. Mullins pitched a complete game for North Branford, allowing just 4 hits and 2 runs while striking out 8.

Coach DeLizio praised North Branford’s seniors for playing a crucial role in helping the team reach the Class S final this year. The senior class includes the captains, who are Ackerman, Bella Hills, Hanna Senerchia, and Gianna DePino, along with Nichole Gomez. DeLizio said the seniors were involved in everything throughout the season and that their leadership paved the way to another sensational campaign.

“The senior class has been amazing this year. We talked about creating positive relationships. We wanted to build leaders out of the seniors and included them in everything we did,” said DeLizio. “We wanted it to trickle down, so that they can be the best role models. I’ve been so happy with their performance this year and how they battled. They’re a special group of girls.”

Even with seven-straight Shoreline titles and a pair of state final appearances, Coach DeLizio knows that the Thunderbirds can’t get complacent going forward. The younger players on the team have seen what it takes to succeed. Now, DeLizio is asking those players to keep working hard in an effort to continue the program’s tradition of success in 2023.

“The experience playing in these types of games, don’t take it for granted. Nothing is guaranteed the following year. We want to challenge them to have better at-bats next year,” DeLizio said. “How can they work to become better players and then become their own leaders? We’d love to be back in the same position next year. What is that going to take mentally and physically? How bad do they want it? All of those things play a part. They have to be ready for any challenge that comes their way.”

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

Senior Lauren Ackerman and the T-Birds finished with an overall record of 20-8 for a season that saw North Branford win its seventh-consecutive Shoreline Conference title and then advance to the state final for the second-straight campaign. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Sound
Senior Bella Hills and the North Branford softball squad went on a thrilling run to the final of the Class S State Tournament as the No. 15 seed in the draw this spring. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Sound