By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
NAUGATUCK — Kylie Bulinski didn’t think she’d get a decent pitch to hit with the Naugatuck Valley League softball championship on the line.
But she did. And she crushed it.
Bulinski’s two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the seventh gave Woodland a 4-2 victory over Naugatuck before more than 500 fans May 26 at Naugatuck High.
It’s the Hawks’ first NVL title since 2010, and Woodland remained a perfect 21-0 entering a state tournament with ultra-high expectations.
Stepping to the plate with a 2-2 score, one out and Isabella Kraemer on first, Bulinski figured that Naugatuck pitcher Alyssa Roberts would issue her an unintentional walk. After all, Bulinski had rocketed a ball out of the park in her previous at-bat for a solo homer in the fifth.
“I had a feeling she was going to walk me and pitch around me,” Bulinski said. “I knew that I couldn’t chase because she has a great riseball and curveball. I saw [catcher Kendall Allen] put her glove out, so I knew they had the idea to walk me. The first pitch was above my head, but on the second pitch, I was thinking, anything close, I’m swinging.”
The junior catcher’s left-handed swing swatted the ball on a no-doubt trajectory over the fence in right-center field. It was her fourth homer in two games after going deep twice in a 16-6 semifinal win over Seymour on May 24.
“She’s so composed,” Woodland coach Loren Luddy said. “She’s laser-focused on that ball. She sees it, she likes it — goodbye.
With her teammates set to mob her at home plate, Bulinski had just one thing on her mind while rounding the bases.
“I wanted to get home as quickly as possible, touch the plate and celebrate,” said Bulinski, who was named tournament MVP.
Top-seeded Woodland took a 1-0 lead in the fourth on May Dawes’ RBI single, which plated Cassidy Doiron. Bulinski’s solo homer in the fifth made it 2-0, but Naugatuck roared back in the top of the sixth.
The second-seeded Greyhounds (17-4) rallied as Allen led off with a single and Roberts made it a second-and-third situation with a double. Both turned into runs — Felicia Salvati’s groundout scored Allen, and Lauryn Ramalho’s single plated courtesy runner Riley Best — and Naugy threatened to take the lead with still only one out.
“They’re fighters,” Naugatuck coach Kevin Wesche said of his team. “They don’t quit. I’d go to battle with them any day against anyone.”
Woodland pitcher Riley Kane, though, slammed the door with a pair of strikeouts to strand two runners on base and preserve the tie.
“I did get a little nervous, but I knew our team would step it up when we needed to,” Kane said. “I just knew I needed to get those outs so we could go in and hit. I just had to push harder with everything I had left.”
“Riley owned the bottom of the order,” said Luddy, who didn’t consider pulling Kane during the sixth. “If she could get the bottom of the order out, we could bring Sam (Sosnovich) in fresh for the seventh inning. One of Naugatuck’s players hadn’t really hit off Riley all year, and she came through. They earned those runs, but we know when push comes to shove that we can hit the ball.”
Woodland didn’t score in the bottom of the sixth, but Sosnovich worked a scoreless seventh with two strikeouts to give the Hawks a chance. She led off the bottom half with a single, and Kraemer replaced her at first on a fielder’s choice to set up Bulinski’s walk-off.
The NVL championship is a culmination — but perhaps not the only one — of years’ worth of expectations for a talented group.
“They want it and they’ve worked for it,” Luddy said. “They have the work ethic needed to do it. (Captains) Emily (Beyer) and May have really kept them focused. They’ve kept this group on the team prize. I really think that being able to do it this year with May and Emily as our leaders is huge.”
The Hounds and Hawks are set to turn their focus to the bigger prize with state tournament action starting June 1 with the first round, followed by the second round on June 2 and quarterfinals June 4, all at the higher seed’s home field. The semifinals will be played June 7-8 and the finals are set for June 11-12, both at neutral sites.
Naugatuck earned the No. 10 seed in Class L and is set to host No. 23 Waterbury Career. The winner would face No. 7 Windsor or No. 26 E.O. Smith in the second round.
Woodland notched its first-ever top seed in the Class M tournament and earned a first-round bye. The Hawks are set to host either No. 16 Nonnewaug or No. 17 Abbott Tech in the second round, and they would host a quarterfinal June 4 — possibly against NVL rival and No. 8-seeded Wolcott.
While the NVL title was good for the Hawks, they know there’s a bigger prize out there.
“It feels amazing,” Kane said. “We’ve been waiting for this point. All those close games just led up to this. Now it’s states, and I want a ring.”