Pictured: North Branford starter Kiley Mullins was on top of her game Monday, pitching the T-Birds past Coginchaug and into the Shoreline tournament semifinals. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Marc Silvestrini

DURHAM — One month and a day ago, on April 22, North Branford ace Kiley Mullins came to Durham and was on the losing end of a 13-5 score.

On Monday, in the opening round of the Shoreline Conference softball tournament, Mullins and the T-Birds were back in town. And this time Mullins pitched her team to an 8-4 win over Coginchaug, scattering eight hits and allowing only three earned runs.

First-Round Results
No. 1 Haddam-Killingworth 13, No. 8 East Hampton 3
No. 2 Cromwell 5, No. 7 Valley Regional 0
No. 5 North Branford 8, No. 4 Coginchaug 4
No. 3 Old Lyme 6, No. 6 Hale-Ray 1

Semifinals, Tuesday
North Branford at H-K
Old Lyme at Cromwell

Championship, Thursday
Host site: North Branford or Morgan

The win advances fifth-seeded North Branford to the Shoreline semifinals on Tuesday against No. 1 Haddam-Killingworth, a 13-3 winner over East Hampton. Coginchaug, which was eliminated by the T-Birds for the fourth straight year that the tournament has been played, will next play in the CIAC Class S tournament.

The Blue Devils, who are currently ranked 12th in Class S, will play a home game on Tuesday against an opponent to be determined by Saturday’s qualifying-round games.

North Branford’s Bella Hills laces a triple to left field in the fourth inning Monday against Coginchaug. She later scored on an infield hit by Tessa Juniver. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Aside from enabling the T-Birds to advance to the semifinal round, Monday’s win was coach Nick DeLizio 19th straight in conference tournament play. DeLizio took over the program in 2015 and has won the tournament all six years he has been the head coach. Remarkably, COVID-19 – which led to the cancellation of the regular season and tournament in 2020 – is the only barrier that has thwarted DeLizio and his program so far in his career.

North Branford jumped on the Blue Devils for five unearned runs in the first two innings to give Mullins all the support she would need. Janna Jose, who last pitched on April 18 and was making her first start since injuring a finger on her throwing hand on April 20, was the hard-luck starter and loser for the Devils.

Jose pitched a seven-inning complete game, surrendering seven hits while striking out six and walking a pair. Seven of the eight runs she gave up were unearned.

“Those errors we made early in the game set the tone and we were never able to recover,” Coginchaug coach Steve DeMartino said. “We just could never get to Mullins, who pitched a great game.”

“Give North Branford all the credit,” he added. “They came out ready to play, took advantage of our mistakes and just never let up. They deserved to win. They played better than we did.”

Lauren Ackerman led off the T-Bird first by lining an opposite-field double down the third-base line. A throwing error on Alexa Falcioni’s bunt enabled Ackerman to score and Falcioni to motor to third, from where she scored on Lindsey Onofrio’s sacrifice fly to left.

Jose pitched a seven-inning complete game, surrendering seven hits while striking out six and walking a pair. Seven of the eight runs she gave up were unearned. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

The Blue Devils sliced the lead in half in the bottom of the first when Natalie Ness drew a walk, stole second and scored on Jose’s ringing double to center, but the Thunderbirds came right back in the top of the second to post three more unearned runs, extending their lead to 5-1.

Adriana Hills led off the North Branford second by striking out, but managed to reach first base on a passed ball on the third strike. Another Coginchaug error put runners at second and third from where Tessa Juniver, the eighth hitter in the T-Birds’ batting order, plated both on a ground single up the middle. Juniver moved to third on yet another Devil error and scored on a perfectly executed safety-squeeze bunt by Gabrielle Senerchia, the ninth hitter in the order, to pad North Branford’s lead to four.

“We executed today,” DeLizio said. “Kiley pitched a great game, we had timely hitting, we made some plays in the field and we got some very big clutch hits from the bottom of our order. It was really a full-team effort.”

Bella Hills tripled in the top of the fourth and scored on another run-scoring hit by Juniver to make it 6-1 before the Devils finally nicked Mullins for a pair of runs in the last of the sixth to draw to within 6-3. The runs were brought home when Amanda Case knocked in Jackie Kelly and Allison Strang — both of whom had singled — with a double.

The T-Birds got those runs back in the top of the seventh when Natalie Lucibello knocked home both Ackerman, who had singled, and Falcioni, who had reached on Coginchaug’s fourth error of the day, with a double.

Allison Sambor led off the Coginchaug seventh with a double and, after a T-Birds error had moved her to third, scored on Ava Marenna’s bouncer to short to make the final score 8-4.

Ackerman led the T-Bird attack with three hits and three runs scored while Juniver had two hits and three ribbies. Lucibello had a hit and two RBIs while Onofrio and Bella Hills collected the other two North Branford hits.

Case had two hits and two RBIs for Coginchaug, while Jose – who hit the ball hard in all three of her plate appearances – had a hit and knocked in a run.

“We really came to play today, we had some good hits and our infield made a lot of nice plays,” Mullins said, when asked what the difference was between this game and her last visit to Durham.

“We made a lot of mistakes in that last game,” said Mullins, who indicated she did not utilize her fastball as much Monday and relied instead on her change-up and an assortment of “spin” pitches. “We hadn’t really jelled as a team yet.”

When asked for the secret to the program’s uncanny success in the Shoreline tournament, Mullins said it was simply a matter of enthusiasm.

“Every year when it gets to be tournament season we get all hyped up and really excited,” she said.

Her coach had an even more basic answer.

“It’s about having great pitchers, great players,” DeLizio shrugged. “We have high expectations around here and the kids have always responded to that.”

When asked why all that greatness somehow seems to find its way back into the program just as the last great group graduates, he answered by using a quote he had recently read.

“Tradition,” DeLizio said, “doesn’t graduate.”

North Branford……230 100 2–8 8 1
Coginchaug……….100 002 1–4 8 4

Batteries: NB–Mullins and Adriana Hills; Cog–Jose and Konopka. WP: Mullins; LP: Jose. 2B: NB–Ackerman, Onofrio, Lucibello; Cog–Jose, Case, Sambor. 3B: NB–Ackerman, Bella Hills. Records: North Branford 14-7; Coginchaug 12-7.

The rest of the Shoreline tournament scoreboard:

H-K 13, East Hampton 3: Sophomore Brooke Hickman launched a 3-run home run to solidify the Cougars’ win and also got credit for a save in relief of starter Kaleigh Bodak. Hickman came on in the fourth and pitched 2 1/3 innings without allowing a hit. Eight H-K batters had at least 1 hit and 1 RBI. Olivia DeMartino had 2 hits for the Bellringers (8-12) and scored 2 runs. H-K improved to 19-2 ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal matchup at home against North Branford. The Cougars swept the T-Birds in the regular season.

Cromwell 5, Valley Regional 0: Junior Lily Kenney pitched a 5-hitter with 12 strikeouts, outdueling Valley’s Anna Benson in their Shoreline first-round matchup in Cromwell. After getting a second-inning run, the Panthers nursed it until scoring 4 times in the sixth to pull away from the No. 7 seed Warriors. Kenney had an RBI single in the sixth and Victoria Wiatrak contributed 2 hits for the Panthers (19-2), who will be the top seed (by lottery) in the Class S tournament, which starts next week. Valley (8-12) has qualified for the Class M tournament.

Old Lyme 6, Hale-Ray 1: Emma Bayor fired a 1-hitter while striking out 11 for her 10th win on the season, leading the Wildcats (16-5) to a semifinal matchup against Cromwell. Jamie Bucior had 2 two doubles, 3 RBIs and a run scored for Old Lyme, while Bayor hit a solo homer and scored 3 times.

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