CLINTON — A year ago when fierce rivals Westbrook and North Branford met in the Shoreline Conference tournament championship game, it was all Thunderbirds.
The Knights only got inside the 20 yard line four times in the 2018 game and had no quality shots. The reason was the Thunderbirds dominated ball possession for a 2-0 win.
It was a different game on Thursday in the sixth annual Shoreline Conference final. The ball possession this time was about a 50-50 split and the Knights gave the Thunderbirds a strong challenge. But the Thunderbirds — or at least Bianca D’Onofrio — took advantage of being in the right place at the right time to come away with another win and another title.
D’Onofrio wound up and swung her stick for a strong shot off a rebound off goalie Lauren Horne. D’Onofrio scored 33 seconds into the second half to lead No. 1 North Branford to a 2-1 win over No. 2 Westbrook for the Thunderbird’s second straight Shoreline Conference title.
“The ball bounced off the goalie right to me,” D’Onofrio said. “When the ball came at me I swung as hard as I could. The ball went between the goalie’s legs into the net. When I hit it, I wasn’t sure if it would go in or if she would make the save. But I was extremely happy when it went in.
“This was a tough game and when I scored there was a lot of time left. But our defense was strong, something we practiced a lot all season. This is definitely the biggest goal I scored this season. It’s great to be a champion and it gives us some momentum going into the state tournament (CIAC Class S).”
North Branford (17-0-1) wins its fourth Shoreline Conference title overall.
“I knew Westbrook would bring their A game today, this was a more challenging game this year,” North Branford coach Babby Nuhn said. “We let our intensity up a little when they tied it 1-1. But this is a team with a deep senior class, they’re a cohesive group and they communicate well.
“They picked the intensity up after Westbrook scored. Overall, Westbrook had some opportunities but our defense was key for us. Our captain Kelli Jacobson controlled the back field for us. It’s great to win this title again but now we have to prepare for the state tournament and who knows? Westbrook and us are in different brackets and we could meet again.”
Defense has been a strength for both teams this season and it was evident in the low-scoring first half.
Ava Galdenzi, named the 2019 Shoreline Conference field hockey player of the year, used a strong wrist shot from about eight feet in front of the goal and gave North Branford a 1-0 lead with 17:28 to go in the first half. The Knights had a quick answer when Megan Greaves scored for the Knights to tie the game at 1 with 16:34 to go.
That would be the halftime score with the on-field defenders limiting the shots on goal on both sides. North Branford had two shots on goal and Westbrook had one.
The Thunderbirds wasted no time in regaining the lead when D’Onofrio scored to kick off the second half.
Both teams put some pressure on the goalies and each team had a pair of shots that were denied by the goalies. Horne ended up with five saves in the game and made two kick saves late in the game to keep the Knights (14-2-2) within a goal for a possible tie. North Branford controlled the ball the last three minutes of the game to deny the Knights any chance for a tie.
Jaime Matthews ended up with two saves for North Branford.
“When we went right back and scored, it gave us some momentum and I think we played hard right up until the end,” Westbrook coach Janet Dickey said. “Yes, it was a very different game from last year, which is what I was hoping for.
“I think a couple of balls bouncing a different direction might have helped us. But like I said, I think we fought right up until the end. I think advancing to the final again, we most definitely have some confidence and momentum going into states (Class S) which is what the girls and I talked about after the game.”
Bianca D’Onofrio, North Branford: Scored the game-winning goal 33 seconds into the second half for a 2-1 win over Westbrook.
“I expected a different, stronger game from Westbrook than last year. We both changed our strategies.”
— North Branford coach Babby Nuhn.