Pictured: A happy group of Thunderbirds surround pitcher Kiley Mullins (6) after Tuesday’s shutout win over Haddam-Killingworth. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

By Marc Silvestrini

HIGGANUM — At their respective cores, baseball and softball are not as different as you might think. Great pitching and steady defensive play will always carry the day in either sport.

The North Branford softball team took a giant step Tuesday in its bid to win a seventh straight Shoreline Conference tournament championship by defeating Haddam-Killingworth, the tournament’s top seed, 5-0 behind the stellar pitching of Kiley Mullins and a rock-solid defense.

Mullins tossed a complete-game, seven-hit shutout while North Branford’s defense made several outstanding plays behind her, including a pair of well-executed double plays that ended potential Cougar threats in successive innings late in the game.

The T-Birds will now play Old Lyme, a 3-1 winner Tuesday over No. 2 seed Cromwell, in the championship game on Thursday at a neutral site. The title game will be a rematch of last year’s tournament final.

Kiley Mullins’ day against a loaded H-K offense was helped along by her team’s spectacular defense. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

The win was the 20th straight for North Branford in Shoreline tournament play under coach Nick DeLizio, who took over the program prior to the start of the 2015 season and has won every game in every tournament since.

“I think it’s a culture thing, a mindset that just keeps reinforcing itself,” DeLizio said of his team’s remarkable tournament success. “I think our girls have a lot of experience playing in these big-pressure games. They know what they have to do to win and they just keep putting their best effort forward.

“When tournament time comes around, all egos, all distractions, go out the window and everyone knows we have to play together with one goal in mind.”

The Cougars, who have the third-best record in the CIAC Class M tournament field, will likely open play with a home game next Wednesday, coach Jeff Talbott said.

After two scoreless innings, North Branford broke through against Cougars starter Brooke Hickman by scoring three runs on four hits in the top of the third.

Bella Hills led the inning by beating out a bunt for a base hit and stealing second. Tessa Juniver’s sharp single to left sent Hills to third, but with one out she was thrown out at the plate by Hickman on Lauren Ackerman’s fielder’s-choice bouncer back to the mound.

At that point, with two out and runners on second and third, it looked like Hickman might work her way out of the jam, but a walk to freshman second baseman Lexi Falcioni loaded the bases, bringing Lindsey Onofrio, a hot hitter, to bat.

“My approach lately has been trying not to do too much,” the sophomore shortstop explained. “I’ve been trying to feel comfortable at the plate and hit the ball hard and on the ground somewhere.

“We work in practice on how we’re going to hit with runners in scoring position so I knew I wanted to go up there and just make contact and hit the ball on the ground.”

Her approach was exactly what the T-Birds needed. Onofrio delivered a clutch, two-out single up the middle to plate the first two runs of the game.

Natalie Lucibello, another sophomore, then ripped a hard single to center, scoring Falcioni to hand Mullins a 3-0 lead.

To their credit, the Cougars never quit. Having left runners on base in three straight innings, H-K mounted its biggest threat of the day in the fifth when it loaded the bases with one out on singles by Annabelle Zajac and Cheyenne LaTouche and Ivy McNiel’s third straight walk of the game.

That brought cleanup hitter Kaleigh Bodak to the plate. She promptly scorched a low line drive toward Falcioni at second base. Moving at the crack of the bat and falling to her knees, the freshman made a diving catch just inches off the infield dirt, scrambled to her feet and rifled a hard, accurate throw to Lucibello at third to double off the H-K runner, ending the threat.

An inning later, the Cougars managed to get their leadoff hitter aboard when Mullins hit Hickman with a pitch. H-K’s Belle LaTorre than hit a bullet on the ground that Lucibello picked up near the third base bag. Lucibello threw to Falcioni at second, who relayed the ball to Gianna DePino at first to complete a rare 5-4-3 double play, the T-Birds second twin-killing in as many innings.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw anybody complete a 5-4-3 double play – you just never see one of those,” DeLizio said.

Falcioni, who was an integral part of both double plays and then followed that up by making two outstanding plays in the seventh inning, said she was just happy to be able to help out her pitcher.

“We play with a lot of energy and we always have each other’s back,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to be out on that field making plays when you know your whole team is behind you.

“It feels so great to be part of this team and win big games like this one.”

With Mullins and the T-Bird defense keeping the 3-0 lead intact through six innings, the offense added a pair of insurance runs in the top of the seventh off Bodak, who had relieved Hickman in the fifth.

Ackerman led the inning off with an opposite-field single to left. Falcioni then attempted to bunt Ackerman to second, but the Cougars threw the ball into right field, enabling Ackerman to score and Falcioni to race to third.

Lucibello then plated Falcioni with an infield single to give Mullins a 5-0 lead entering H-K’s last at-bat.

A great catch by Bella Hills in left and two fine plays by Falcioni later, the T-Birds had won their 20th straight Shoreline tournament game and were beginning to prepare for an Old Lyme team that scored three runs in the seventh to stun Cromwell.

Onofrio and Lucibello each had two hits and a pair of RBIs for the Thunderbirds while Ackerman and Falcioni each scored twice. Ackerman, Bella Hills and Juniver also contributed hits to the T-Bird attack.

Zajac had a pair of hits for the Cougars while Cheyenne LaTouche, Madison LaTouche, Bella Richwine, Keira Czarkowski and Hickman had the other hits off Mullins.

“They played very well today – their defense just kept making great plays,” Talbott said of the T-Birds.

“We beat that pitcher (Mullins) twice during the regular season and were able to score some runs in both games, but today those balls weren’t falling in for us,” he added. “Today instead of winding up with hits, they caught just about everything we got our bats on. Sometimes these games come down to a matter of just a few inches here or there.”

North Branford………….003 000 2–5 7 0
Haddam-Killingworth…000 000 0–0 7 3

Batteries: NB: Mullins and Adriana Hills; HK: Hickman, Bodak (5) and Madison LaTouche. WP: Mullins; LP: Hickman. 2B: HK–Hickman. Records: North Branford 15-7; H-K 19-3.

Over in Cromwell …

Old Lyme 3, Cromwell 1: The Wildcats scored 3 runs in the top of the seventh off Cromwell’s Lily Kenney to secure their return to the Shoreline title game. Emma Bayor led off the seventh with a double and scored on Jamie Bucior’s triple. Maddie Hubbard’s bunt drove in Bucior with the go-ahead run. Bucior, who reached, stole second and third and scored on an errant throw. Bucior had 2 hits. Bayor went the distance, allowing an unearned run on 9 hits, with 4 walks and 9 strikeouts. Kenney struck out 11.

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