The quarterfinal rounds of the Shoreline softball tournament will take place on Saturday, giving North Branford a much-needed breather following a metaphorical sprint to the finish line of the regular season.
Four games in, North Branford held a 3-1 record but all 13 players were forced into quarantine for two weeks, creating a log jam of games to make up in the final weeks.
With a doubleheader sweep of Hale Ray on Wednesday, North Branford (15-2) finished a stretch of 10 games in 10 days, impressively winning nine.
“We were out from the 17th of April and I didn’t return until the 28th, and we weren’t able to practice until May 1st,” North Branford coach Nick DeLizio said. “We were shut down for quite a while and the girls weren’t even in school. It was on them to try and stay ready. They had to find ways to get their work in, some went to the cages and some used siblings.”
The Thunderbirds practiced twice before resuming games, starting with Westbrook on May 3.
“We only had two days of practice before we started games again,” DeLizio said. “Since then it was pretty much games every day. The girls stepped up in a big role and were ready to compete.”
North Branford returned with a 3-0 week, including a 12-7 revenge win over Haddam-Killingworth, which had won the first meeting 11-4 in the second game of the season.
“That win right there sparked something for us,” DeLizio said. “It gave the girls confidence to think ‘Hey, we are here and we can compete.’”
Riding a five-game win streak stretching over more than three weeks, the 10 in 10 marathon began against East Hampton/Portland on May 10 with a 12-0 win.
The next day North Branford played a doubleheader, defeating Cromwell 10-9 in 10 innings with a walk-off hit by Lindsey Onofrio, followed by a 7-1 win over Old Saybrook.
“Everybody stepped up,” DeLizio said. “It has been like a little inner competition. One person got a hit and the next person wanted to get one. Even against the good pitching we got the timely hits.”
The Thunderbirds defeated Cromwell again the next day, 4-0 thanks to a shutout from ace Bella Hill.
With its fifth game in four days, DeLizio decided to give his ace a break and handed the ball to freshman Kiley Mullins. In her first career start, Mullins shut out Old Lyme in a 6-0 victory to push the win streak to 10 games.
“It felt like we were a major-league team playing every single day,” DeLizio said. “We were put through the ringer but they showed resiliency. When we played Old Lyme I could tell that everyone was mentally exhausted.”
North Branford was given an off day that Friday, but turned around for a morning game against Morgan that Saturday. Mullins was given the ball for a second consecutive start, which she had earned after her shutout in her starting debut. Mullins solidified her role as a starting pitcher, no-hitting Morgan through five innings with eight strikeouts and just one walk allowed in the 15-0 win.
“Mullins throws hard as a freshman and she is an awesome kid,” DeLizio said. “She has been huge so we haven’t had to put all the stress on Bella Hill, who has been a workhorse for us.”
A day off on Sunday was followed by a scheduled Monday game against Westbrook, who forfeited but played anyway, stretching the win streak to 12 games.
North Branford lost its second game of the season the following day, a 9-4 defeat at the hands of Coginchaug (15-2) which will be the No. 2 seed in the Shoreline Tournament.
The Thunderbirds then swept Hale Ray in a doubleheader Wednesday to close the book on the regular season, having claimed the 3rd seed in the tournament and a bye to the quarterfinal round.
“The pitching in the Shoreline has been the best I have seen it in at least 10 years” DeLizio said. “There is a lot of competition, which is good because it makes all of the teams better. This is a pretty special group we have here and we are looking forward to the tournament.”
The emergence of Kiley Mullins as a starting pitcher to support Bella Hill has firmly placed North Branford into the conversation of top pitching threats in the conference.
Hill is 9-2 with a 2.33 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched and nine starts. Mullins has appeared in 10 games and started four, boasting a 6-0 record with a 0.55 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 38 innings.
The offense has complimented the pitching staff well, with a team batting average of .412 that has been led by senior Jada Miconi.
“Jada Miconi is having an unbelievable season,” DeLizio said. “She swings like a professional baseball player. She has great balance, she is poised at the plate and has a great eye.”
Miconi is slashing .578/.636/1.111 with more than half of her hits for extra bases. She has also driven in 22 runs and scored 17.
Six total batters ended the regular season with a batting average of at least .400 for North Branford.
With the toughest part of the year behind it, DeLizio said he feels North Branford is ready for anything and has developed a unique bond heading into the playoffs.
“We have a great team chemistry and after this past week the comradery showed,” DeLizio said. “We were battle tested and tired, but they really played for each other and they have a drive and passion. This has been one of the most fun years I have had coaching for sure.”
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