Pictured: The Panthers celebrate in West Haven on Tuesday after defeating Old Lyme 3-1 to advance to the Class S championship game. (Photo by Lucille Silvestrini)
By Marc Silvestrini
WEST HAVEN — Déjà vu is the sense or feeling of having already experienced something that is currently happening to you in the present.
Cromwell ace pitcher Lily Kenney, her head coach, Angelo Morello, and every single one of her teammates all experienced a déjà vu moment together on Tuesday night when the Old Lyme Wildcats, who Kenney had shut out over six innings of play, staged a furious seventh-inning rally.
Exactly two weeks ago, in the semifinals of the Shoreline Conference tournament, Kenney and the Panthers took a 1-0 lead into the top of the seventh only to watch the Wildcats stage a stunning three-run rally to eliminate Cromwell 3-1.
On Tuesday, in the CIAC Class S tournament semifinals, the Panthers took a 3-0 lead into the top of the seventh and promptly were pushed into panic mode when the first two Wildcat batters reached base on a walk – the only base on balls Kenney would issue on the day — and an error. From there, Kenney retired the next two hitters before Wildcats catcher Grace Phaneuf lined a double to right-center to score one run and place the tying runs at second and third.
Déjà vu. Again.
Kenney, however, never lost her composure and retired the next hitter, Lauren Creagan, on a soft comebacker to the mound, sealing a 3-1 Cromwell victory that propels the Panthers into the tournament’s championship game against North Branford.
The Thunderbirds, 4-2 winners over Coventry in their semifinal, and Cromwell will square off in an all-Shoreline Conference Class S tournament final on Saturday (3pm) at Deluca Field in Stratford.
“They just don’t give up, they’re cardiac kids,” Morello said of the Wildcats. “They just keep coming back at you, but this time, we handled the pressure a little bit better.
“I’m really proud of all my kids,” he added. “They really wanted this game and they played like that tonight.”
Kenney agreed that the Panthers felt they owed the Wildcats payback for what happened two weeks ago.
“We were so ready for revenge,” she said. “What happened in that last game fueled everything.
“Old Lyme is a great team,” she added. “I love playing against great teams because that only makes me better.”
This will be top-seeded Cromwell’s first appearance in a state final. The Thunderbirds, seeded 12th, were in the Class M final last year, losing to Seymour 6-0.
It’s hard to imagine Kenney playing a better all-around game. On the mound, she pitched seven innings of two-hit ball, allowing a single unearned run while striking out 10 and walking one.
At the plate, she helped break a scoreless tie in Cromwell’s three-run fourth inning against Wildcat ace Emma Bayor, by drilling a laser shot just over the third baseman’s glove and down the left field line for a double that ignited the Panther rally.
“She was just fantastic tonight,” Morello said, noting that his junior ace has now won 36 games over the past two seasons. “She was really sharp on the mound, she got that hit to start our big inning and she also made some great plays with her glove.”
Kenney had two put outs and two assists in four fielding chances, including a spectacular diving catch of a short popup midway between the mound and home plate in the sixth inning.
“Mostly everything,” was catcher Victoria Wiatrak’s response when asked what pitches were working for Kenney throughout the game. “Maybe her changeup was her best pitch tonight.”
Both Kenney and Bayor were all but invincible through the first three innings. Kenney allowed two base runners in that span – one on an infield error in the second and the other on a single by Anna Eichholz – while Bayor allowed only one runner to reach base — on an infield error in the third.
But with one out in the fourth, Kenney reached Bayor with her scalded double. Wiatrak then followed with a single to center, scoring Kenney with Wiatrak moving to second on an error in the Wildcat outfield.
Grace McFarlin then ripped a single to center, scoring Wiatrak, and took second on the throw to the plate. Two batters later, McFarlin scored when the Wildcat infield failed to handle a soft blooper off the bat of Samantha Smith, and the Panthers had their 3-0 lead.
Three strikeouts, a brilliant catch by McFarlin in left, and Kenney’s diving grab of the popup off the bat of Ava Roth, turned Old Lyme away in the fifth and sixth, setting up the nerve-racking seventh.
Bayor led the inning off with a walk and Jenna Schauder reached on an infield error, putting runners on first and third with no one out. Kenney reached back and retired the next two Old Lyme batters on a strikeout and a harmless pop up, but with two out, Phaneuf’s run-scoring double brought back bitter memories from the last time these teams met to everyone in a Cromwell uniform.
However, a bouncer to the mound ended the trauma for the Panthers and their fans.
“I have so much trust and confidence in my defense and in my teammates, I knew we’d get the job done,” Kenney said of her team’s seventh-inning difficulties.
McFarlin paced Cromwell’s six-hit attack with a pair of hits while Jamie Anderson, Kenney, Wiatrak and Malena Signorello had the other hits. Eichholz and Phaneuf collected the two hits off Kenney.
Bayor, meanwhile, deserved a kinder fate, allowing six hits and two earned runs in her seven innings of quality work. Like Kenney, she fanned 10 and walked one.
“Now there’s only one big one left,” Morello said, referring to the title showdown against a very hot North Branford team.
“We’re all very excited to play them,” Wiatrak added. “They’re a worthy opponent.”
Cromwell won both regular-season meetings versus North Branford, 2-0 on April 7 and 4-0 on May 20.
Old Lyme 000 000 1–1 2 3
Cromwell 000 300 x–3 6 3
Batteries: OL–Bayor and Phaneuf; C–Kenney and Wiatrak. WP: Kenney; LP: Bayor. 2B: OL–Phaneuf; C–Kenney, McFarlin. Records: OL 20-7; Cromwell 22-3.