Pictured: Cromwell came into the Class S tournament as the No. 1 seed and left it as champion. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Marc Silvestrini
STRATFORD — Cromwell’s outstanding pitcher Lily Kenney walked Lauren Ackerman, the first North Branford batter she faced in Saturday’s CIAC Class S tournament championship game, on four pitches.
But Ackerman was erased two pitches later when she was thrown out at third by first baseman Malena Signorello after Alexa Falcioni’s sacrifice bunt had moved Ackerman to second.
Kenney simply took the game over from there, retiring 18 of the next 19 Thunderbird batters she faced in pitching the Panthers to a 3-0 win and their first-ever state championship at DeLuca Field.
The junior right-hander got all the offensive support she would need when Signorello drilled a two-out, two-run home run to left field in the last of the fourth and catcher Victoria Wiatrak unloaded a towering blast over the same left-field fence in the sixth.
In all, Kenney, who was named the game’s most valuable player, pitched in four games during the tournament and allowed only one run, and that was unearned, while shutting out three opponents. She has now won 37 games in her two years as Cromwell’s ace.
“This was a great team effort, we have some very special players on this club, but let’s face it, everything starts with Lily,” Cromwell coach Angelo Morello said. “She’s just been spectacular for us. You just can’t pitch any better than she has during this tournament.
“She was just dominant all tournament long and today, in the biggest game of all, she was dominant from the start.”
North Branford coach Nick DeLizio was also impressed with Kenney’s performance.
“Lily does a great job,” he said. “She pitches low and away. She had us fighting for the ball, swinging and missing, she painted the outside and we were just pulling off at the plate.
“We didn’t’ really have any great at-bats. We (went to) a couple of deep counts, but you’ve got to get on base. It’s tough to win on one hit. … Lily was very good.”
That, she was. Kenney on Saturday faced the minimum 21 batters in her seven innings of work, allowing just two T-Bird baserunners, both of whom were Ackerman. Kenney fanned 11 and walked one.
Ackerman, the North Branford center fielder and lead-off hitter, walked in the first before being thrown out by Signorello, and beat out a bunt in the fourth for the team’s only hit off Kenney, but was promptly thrown out by Wiatrak attempting to steal second.
“This was my first start in a state championship game so I was a little nervous,” Kenney said. “I was nervous when the game began but then I realized that my teammates had my back and that I didn’t have to do everything by myself.
“I am so grateful to be a part of this team,” she added. “It’s been such a great experience playing with these guys.”
Kenney wasn’t the only red-hot pitcher in Saturday’s game. North Branford starter Kiley Mullins had won six straight Shoreline and Class S tournament games, and had allowed just two runs with two shutouts in her first three state tournament games.
Mullins on Saturday also pitched a strong game. In fact, DeLizio said that outside of one pitch he wishes Mullins could have back; the sophomore’s performance was “awesome.”
“She had that one mistake pitch that was supposed to be up and in and it leaked kind of right over the middle of the plate and it got hit out,” he said. “Signorello put a good swing on it, she got the barrel to the ball. That was it.”
After Kenney and Mullins had traded zeros through the first three and a half innings, Wiatrak dropped a single into short right field with one out in the bottom of the fourth. Mullins then retired Grace McFarlin — who hit the ball hard in all three of her plate appearances — on a drive to left before Signorello turned on a fastball and hit a bullet over the fence in left to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead.
“I’m just glad I was able to do something to help my team win the game, because we all felt this was our year,” Signorello said of her fourth homer of the season. “I’m not sure what kind of pitch I hit, I think it was a little inside. I’m just glad I hit it.”
Kenney, who retired the final 11 batters she faced, got the T-Birds in order in both the fifth and sixth innings, before Wiatrak hit a high, towering home run to left off Mullins with two-out in the bottom of the sixth to give Kenney a 3-0 lead.
“That really felt good when I hit it,” Wiatrak said of her first home run of the season. “I really got the good part of the bat on the ball.”
Wiatrak had a big game for the Panthers, with two hits, two runs scored, and an RBI. In addition, the catcher threw out the only base runner that attempted to steal on her and called what her coach described as a “terrific” game behind the plate.
“She calls all the pitches for Lily, been doing that all year,” Morello said.
Kenney, herself, gives her sophomore catcher, plenty of credit for her success.
“She just knows when I get nervous out there, and she’s great at calming me down,” the pitcher said.
Along with Wiatrak, McFarlin also added a pair of hits to the Panthers’ six-hit attack while Signorello had that one big hit and two important ribbies. Jamie Anderson had Cromwell’s other hit.
Mullins allowed six hits and three runs over six innings of work, struck out six and walked no one.
DeLizio said he was pleased to see the way the T-Birds worked through their 0-3 start to peak at the most important points of the season.
“Like I said, at the beginning of the year, the way we started you’d be second-guessing what our identity was,” he said. “Middle of the season things started coming together here and there, and then we caught fire from the last week of season to the Shorelines right up to this point. I’m so proud of how they came back and battled through adversity. They were a special group to coach. I really do love them.”
Morello also appears to be quite enamored with his club.
“From Day 1, I knew we had a special group,” he said. “I knew this team was capable of doing special things. I know Lily gets a lot of the accolades, and she deserves them all, but we have a lot of good players on this team.”
North Branford..000 000 0–0 1 0
Cromwell………..000 201 x–3 6 0
Batteries: NB–Mullins and Adriana Hills; C–Kenney and Wiatrak. WP: Kenney; LP: Mullins. 2B: C–McFarlin. HR: C–Signorello, Wiatrak. Records: North Branford 19-8; Cromwell 23-3.