by Eddie Herz
COMMERCE CITY, Colo –– The Alabama Firecrackers instantaneously jeopardized Alabama Sparks Elite-Stewart's aspirations of not only snatching the Colorado 4th of July 16u Supplemental Championship trophy, but also the club's chances of even maintaining striking distance.
A 3-0 deficit transpired for head coach Slade Stewart's club before most Sparks supporters settled into their seats at Pioneer Park's Capra Field. And after falling behind early, the Sparks still found themselves staring a seemingly uncomfortable disadvantage dead in the eye as Sunday evening's latter stages approached.
Nevertheless, though down, the Sparks were never out. Nor did Stewart's team's confidence dwindle in the slightest as a 3-0 first-frame deficit lingered for several innings.
While their eyes remained locked to the prize despite adversity, the Sparks continued believing en route to forging a 9-3 bracket-clinching victory.
"We've got some dogs," Stewart described. "It doesn't matter if they get down or by how much. They always have faith. They always play hard and stay together. They know the game and gel a ton. Winners always respond, and that's what they did."
Conquering 2022's tournament –– which entailed winning four games on Sunday –– didn't occur as any sort of shock to the Sparks.
The triumphant mindset, admirable competitiveness and commendable cohesion Stewart alluded to produced high hopes for the squad when traveling to Colorado. Additionally, the Sparks entered the Centennial State owning extreme confidence in light of their prowess at the plate –– and knack for erupting offensively at any given moment.
"If you hit, you don't sit, and that's what got us here," Stewart said. "We don't always play great defense. But if you hit like we can, you have a chance to win every game. So we liked our chances going in as long as we played hard like we always do."
Though doing so required a few underwhelming frames, the Sparks' at-the-dish dominance eventually revealed itself as Stewart's organization mounted a ferocious comeback. Specifically, after trimming the score to 3-1 in the third, the Sparks fabricated a six-run fourth-inning outburst to storm ahead 7-3.
Following a run-scoring hit-by-pitch, second baseman Morgan Stiles turned the frame into a riveting rally when launching a one-out grand slam to dead center.
"I was just trying to put it in play, give our runners a chance to score and give our team a shot to tie the game," Stiles said. "It was incredible to see it go over the fence and see how my team reacted."
Sparks players only returned to their dugout for a few seconds following Stiles' surefire shot as Katie Schuler went back-to-back with the second baseman upon pelting her own dinger –– extending the Sparks' lead to 7-3.
From there, it was smooth sailing for the soon-to-be Supplemental champions. And the reason Sunday's conclusive segments proved drama-free had plenty to do with pitcher Ash Coble and center fielder Presley Lively.
Tasked with keeping the Sparks in contention, Stiles took the mound in relief to begin Sunday's second inning while her troupe trailed 3-0. Though the finals constituted her fourth outing of the day, fatigue didn't hinder the reliable right-hander whatsoever.
Upon hurling six shutout innings in which she yielded merely four hits and zero walks, Coble comfortably coasted atop the bump.
"I did everything in my power to keep us in it," Coble said. "I came in knowing I had to shut them down. Making sure I was whipping it with a lot of spin was big for me."
As for Lively, the center fielder played a substantial role in halting a last-gasp Firecrackers rally by manufacturing a pair of web gems. With a runner on first and no outs in the seventh, Lively corralled a practically unfathomable catch when diving over the outfield fence on the dead run to rob a would-have-been two-run homer.
Two pitches later, she snagged a liner and fired a strike to catcher Avery Wynne, who tagged the runner advancing from third at the plate –– an electrifying double play that slammed the door on Sunday's action.
"My teammate hit a grand slam. So I said if she can give it all for me, I can give it my all for her," Lively said. "Our pitcher pitched four times today. If she can give that much effort, I can give that much effort for her. So I went out there trying to do everything I could to help us win."
The road to capturing a title varies from champion to champion. No matter the details of such journey, prevailing as tournament winners always provides extreme satisfaction. Still, it's worth noting that Sunday's outcome tastes extra sweet for the Sparks in light of how 2021's festivities unraveled.
Last year, Stewart's group suffered a deflating 16u Supplemental semifinal loss when falling victim to elimination despite leading with only a few outs remaining. Hence, the Sparks returned with a vengeance in 2022. And, this time around, they wouldn't be denied.
"Winning this means so much because of what happened last year," Lively said. "That hurt a lot, and we've wanted this really bad ever since. So it feels amazing to come out here and get what we deserved. It wasn't easy, but we never backed down and kept pushing. I'm so proud of our team."
"It's huge for the organization, and I can't say enough about the kids," Stewart added. "Every single one of them did their part."