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It's typically a rite of spring for Branford baseball to make the state tournament, but the Hornets have struggled this season and thus entered the home stretch needing to win three of their final four games to qualify. The first of those four was a division duel at North Haven and Ed Bethke's squad played with urgency in upending the Indians 6-3 in eight innings on the soggy night of May 9.
Branford went up 3-0 in the first inning and took a 3-2 advantage to the bottom of the seventh before North Haven tied it on a sacrifice fly, sending the game to extra frames. The Hornets didn't wait long to regain the lead for good as BJ Massey singled to start the eighth, pinch runner Luke DiStasio took second on Marc Canzanella's sacrifice bunt, and then junior Jason Vitale roped a single to right to score DiStasio with the go-ahead run. Captain Robbie Petrillo then smacked a two-run double for insurance, after which fellow senior Nick Debroi capped his complete game by turning aside the Indians in the bottom half.
"North Haven beat us at our house, but tonight we were pumped up and wanted it more," said center fielder Petrillo. "This was a big win and a great weight off our shoulders. It's still a huge task, but now we have momentum to clinch a spot."
Branford (6-11) took that momentum into its games against Notre Dame-West Haven and Xavier earlier this week, after which Bethke and company play at Cheshire in their regular-season finale at 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 16.
"Coming into this one, we looked at our season as a four-game series and we won game one of the series," Bethke said. "It didn't affect us when North Haven scored in the bottom of the seventh and we came right back with a three-spot. Then we felt Nick had earned the right to finish it out. He's a bulldog who battles from start to finish every game and did a great job of hitting his spots and getting ahead with his fastball tonight."
It was Branford which got ahead of North Haven in the top of first inning as the Hornets plated three runs and chased Indians' starter Zack Brown from the mound. Petrillo singled to start the game, Isaiah Rodriguez walked, and both scored on sophomore shortstop Tyler Criscuolo's liner along the right field chalk. Junior BJ Massey then singled home Criscuolo for a 3-0 Branford lead, after which North Haven Coach Bob DeMayo-whose team had clinched the Oronoque title earlier in the week-removed Brown for Mike Acampora, who wound up pitching seven solid frames of relief despite ultimately taking the loss.
Debroi fanned Acampora to escape a based-loaded jam in the bottom of the first, then allowed a run in the second on a double by Chris Brockett.
North Haven then cut the deficit to 3-2 in the third as Chandler Andrewsen singled to lead off, took second on Matt Oestreicher's sacrifice bunt, and scored on a single by Brown.
Meanwhile, Debroi (8 strikeouts) and Acampora were matching zeroes in the middle frames as the Hornets' hurler retired eight straight at one point with Acampora allowing no hits from the third through sixth innings.
Branford maintained its 3-2 lead until the seventh, when Jaycen Torello led off by crushing one to the left field corner for a double, followed by Andrewsen's single that put runners at first and third. Oestreicher then hit a sharp shot to deep right that was corralled by Cody Crane, although Torello easily scored for the game-tying sacrifice fly. The Indians still had a chance to win the game when Acampora came to bat with two outs and pinch runner Dominic Fusco in scoring position after he swiped second, but Debroi got Acampora to ground out to Canzanella at second to send the game to extras.
In the top of the eighth, with DiStasio on second, Vitale got a first-pitch fastball from Acampora and took it down the right field line, scoring the freshman with the go-ahead run. DeMayo then took out Acampora for Andrewsen, who allowed a two-run, two-out double on a 3-2 pitch to Petrillo to left-center that made it 6-3.
"Coach told me to look for a fastball to take the other way and it paid off," said Vitale of his game-winning hit. "This was a great win against a rival that gets us closer to states."
Debroi then went back out to the mound for the bottom half and, despite allowing a leadoff single, retired the next three batters in short order to seal the win for his Hornets. Petrillo said Debroi's performance was "the best game I've ever seen him pitch" and the right-hander felt plenty strong to finish it out even after having already thrown the first seven.
"Coach told me that if we got the lead I could finish it," said Debroi. "I felt good out there. I could have pitched another."