by Michael Roley
There’s a common cliché used in sports for motivational purposes that most athletes have likely heard.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
That saying is applicable in many situations. However, when a team starts well, maintains that steady level of play throughout its performance, and then tops things off with a strong finish, that arguably overused cliché is rather invalid.
And the performance from the Firecrackers CC-James 14U team Friday afternoon would be one that would qualify as such. The Firecrackers, based out of Central California, took an early lead, played solidly throughout, and then closed the door at the end as they beat Impact Gold DFW by a score of 5-3 at Barnes Complex in Loveland.
The win advanced the Firecrackers through to the next round of bracket play in the 14 Open Gold A division.
“What impressed me the most is they come out focused and ready to go every time,” head coach Sidney James said. “It’s not trying to overplay and overdo it, just keeping things simple, pitching and hitting well, being disciplined and having great-at bats. We did that for the course of the game and that’s what impressed me. And that’s what helps us be successful.”
The Firecrackers came out strong with their first two batters reaching base. A sacrifice bunt from shortstop Marissa Fondtain put runners on second and third for starting pitcher Lillianna Garcia, who hit a two-run single to left field to give the Firecrackers the early lead.
Perhaps one of the most defining plays of the game occurred in the bottom half of the first with Garcia in the circle and the Impact with runners on first and third. The Impact’s Emma Robertson hit a fly-ball to right field where the Firecrackers’ right fielder caught it before firing a bullet toward home as an Impact runner tagged from third.
The throw was perfectly on-line, up the third base side where catcher Aaliyah Pineda caught and applied the tag for the out. As this was happening, the Impact’s runner on first broke for second. After the tag, Pineda fired the ball down to second to nail the runner and complete a rare triple play.
“I think that picked us up.” Garcia said. “They had runners on and I was starting to get a little frustrated and then when they picked me up like that, it was really nice.”
Garcia delivered a gem of an outing in the circle. The rising freshman, who also plays second base, threw seven innings and allowed just three runs while striking out six batters. The Impact were not able to square many balls up against her as she induced several pop-ups to the infield and numerous ground balls that the Firecrackers defense handled without incident.
She said afterward that her best pitch, her curveball, was spot-on throughout the afternoon.
“I was just focused on hitting my spots,” Garcia said. “And I knew my team was going to be there to back me up.”
The Firecrackers pushed across two more runs in the second thanks to a two-run double from Destyne White. They would add their fifth run in the fifth inning on a Pineda RBI single.
The Impact started a mini-rally in the sixth on a run-scoring double from Baylea Myers followed by an RBI single from Bianca Raney that shrunk the Firecrackers’ lead to 5-3, where it would stay the rest of the contest.
The Impact brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, but Garcia struck out the final batter of the game to secure the win.
The Firecrackers are now 5-0 at the Colorado 4th of July tournament after running the table in pool play. Now after a win to kick off bracket play, they are poised for the rest of the weekend.
“We just need to stay disciplined, stay humble, pitch well, hit well, and play clean defense,” James said. “It’s out there for anybody to grab.”
Whatever the bracket, whatever the location, the 18u Minnesota SnoCatz Black is looking to make a dent in the Colorado 4th of July tournament.
Making their way through the Sparkler 18 Open Mt. Elbert II bracket, the SnoCatz were sizzling at the plate and lock-down tough on defense in posting two wins Friday, 8-1 over the NJ Heist Elite and then 10-1 over the Next Level 18-Mena squad.
That sets up Saturday’s matchup with Team TFS Elite, with a chance to advance to the bracket championship on the line.
“This was a continuation - I’ve had this team for five years now, and we’ve kept the core together. They practice even harder,” said SnoCatz head coach Jeremy Schauer. “They’re doing what they are supposed to, and I’m very proud of them. We play all year, on the carpet in domes (in bad weather). We work hard, practice even on game days in the morning. It’s a different breed of girls.”
Game 2 on Friday featured the SnoCatz at their sharpest, grabbing early control of the game. A two-run double by Morgan Strombeck broke the game open, and starting pitcher Samantha Pederson sailed through the Next Level lineup. In the second inning, the SnoCatz had seven straight hits, which led to five runs.
“Sam’s our fireballer; she can bring the heat but today she really didn’t need to. She was at 60-62 (mph) but she will hit 68,” Schauer said.
“Coming into the tournament, we knew we were going to have some big competition, but I feel our team is good enough to battle anybody,” Strombeck said. “I expect us to go to the championship. Earlier today I wasn’t hitting that well, so other I was thinking was to keep my weight back and turn my knee as fast as I can. We don’t like to let any team back in; we want to keep scoring.”
Cassie Sinn scored two runs, as did Coryn Jacobson and Cassie Schuster.
You can’t manufacture experience.
Almost half of New Jersey Heist’s Gold roster played in and won the Colorado Sparkler tournament twice. Six games into the 2018 edition, the Heist doesn’t boast a perfect record but has won when it matters, including a 6-1 victory over All American Fastpitch on Friday afternoon, keeping them atop of the 18u Open Mt. Elbert Bracket.
Emerging as the No. 2 seed out of Pool L, New Jersey sat just three wins from earning a berth into the top championship bracket. Facing Premier Speed International early Friday morning, the Heist edged out a win in a high scoring, 9-7, affair.
“What I think you saw today was that offense cures a lot of problems,” said head coach Sergio Rodriguez. “We weren’t perfect, but we made the plays we needed to make and came up with some clutch runs.”
The first inning of New Jersey’s second of its back-to-back games against All American Fastpitch moved swiftly. Neither team able to squeak across a run, the Heist looked to break open the game in the top of the second.
Stephani Kantanas kicked the half-inning off with a single, and two batters later Ava Fernandez drove her home with an RBI base hit.
“We were seeing a lot more inside pitches than outside,” said Kantanas, who finished the game with two hits, two runs scored, an RBI and a stolen base. “When that happens, you just have to keep your momentum inwards and focus driving the ball up the middle.”
Jackie Carifi added a second run in the frame on an RBI double that scored Fernandez, giving the Heist a 2-0 advantage.
With its first lead of the contest, New Jersey’s potential victory rested in the hands of starting pitcher Cat Thomas. Thomas’ only blemish can in the bottom of the second inning on a first-pitch home run to Sheridan Wade. Despite the lone long-ball, Thomas frequently set down All American, compiling three 1-2-3 innings.
“I was relying pretty heavily on my off-speed pitches today,” said Thomas. “My curveball, screwball and changeup were all working pretty well. It helps when I am able to mix up pitches like that.”
Each team held serve until the sixth inning. Looking for a little insurance, Thomas helped herself and her team with a two-run home run.
“I was ahead in the count,” explained Thomas. “As soon as I saw my pitch, I was looking to attack it.”
New Jersey added a third run in the inning when Jackie Lara scored Fernandez on an RBI double. After starting the frame with a 2-1 lead, the Heist now held a sizable cushion, 5-1.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the way Thomas pitched today,” said Rodriguez. “We ended up scoring a few runs late, but the game was still in doubt until the sixth inning. She kept us ahead the whole time.”
Thomas quieted All American in the bottom of the sixth, allowing the Heist to tack on one more run in the top of the seventh when Camryn Davies scurried home on a Jackie Lara single.
One last time, Thomas trotted back to the circle, this time to close out the contest. Tallying her eighth strikeout of the game, Thomas sealed the win, 6-1.
While Thomas caught All American with eight total strikeouts, New Jersey struck out just once in 35 at-bats. A common theme among Rodriguez’s group.
“We stress with our kids all the time, know your role,” Rodriguez said. “If you’re a home run hitter, take your cut, if your someone who’s just a singles hitter, pass the baton to somebody else.”
The Heist enjoy a much-deserved elongated brake before facing Firecrackers-Kimura on Saturday afternoon. A win would ensure New Jersey a spot in the single-elimination championship bracket.
“We have great team chemistry,” said Kantanas. “As long as we stay true to ourselves, don’t knock someone when they’re down and keep our heads up, I think we’ll go pretty far.”
When you suffer an enormous loss, sports becomes a place you can lose yourself, at least for a little while.
Playing all week in the shadow on the untimely death of a former player, the Birmingham Thunderbolts scored in five of their six innings Thursday in the Fireworks 16u TV Power Poll game and eased past Firecrackers-Brashear for a 12-4 run-rule victory at the Aurora Sports Park. Shelby Lowe (an Auburn commit) threw a complete game and allowed five hits in six innings of work.
On Tuesday, 18-year-old Alex Wilcox, who played for the Thunderbolts and just finished her freshman year at Mississippi State, died after fighting ovarian cancer for more than two years. The 16u roster was short two pieces as sister Kassidy Wilcox (a South Alabama commit) and head coach Keith Dorsett were back home for the funeral; the post-game celebration had its share of smiles, but it was clear that Alex Wilcox’s legacy took center stage.
“This is about the Wilcox family and the Bolts organization. What a great group of kids, been together eight years or more and know how to be true sisters,” said Bolts assistant coach James Webster. “The team fought tonight and never quit, just like Alex did. A lot of that fight lives in these girls, and they simply weren’t going to quit. Coach Dorsett got them prepared to play in this tournament and has been there for them for so many years.”
In terms of Thursday’s game, the Bolts had to shake off an early miscue, when two fielders ran into each other and allowed a fly ball to drop. Laylo Melendez (Utah) of the Firecrackers drilled a two-run homer, and the Bolts were down heading into the bottom of the first.
Three hits, a walk and an error put two runs up for the Bolts; they pulled ahead 3-2 in the third after a triple by Alicyn Grete (Army) and a single from TJ Webster, and then scored seven runs combined in the fourth and fifth innings.
Lowe might have been bothered by that first-inning glitch, but any discomfort was temporary.
“I just took a deep breath there in the first and thought about restarting. I didn’t want to let it affect me,” Lowe said. “We come back and score those two runs, and I knew after that we’d hit the ball the whole game. I felt like I did a pretty good job, got more pop flys and ground balls, and balls where people behind me could make plays.”
Webster was the definition of the hard-to-contain leadoff hitter, scoring four runs and notching three hits and a walk. She scored the clinching run of the night on a single from Caroline Hudson (Liberty).
“Honestly, I just look at the defense and read them, then try to put the ball in play the best I can do,” she said. “Bunting is my main priority; (swinging away) is when I’m low in the count and can’t bunt. It helps me move runners around, and if you have speed, you might as well use it.”
Melendez drove in three runs for the Firecrackers; Kelly Ryono (Illinois) tripled and scored in the fourth, and Bailey Wallace (Cal State Fullerton) singled and scored in the fifth on a hit from Megan Ryono (Columbia).
by Kyle Koso
For Savannah Guerin, the best response to the sight of opponents bleeding her pitch count was to perform some impressive surgery in the circle.
Guerin scattered five hits in seven innings of work for the Diamond Sports Hotshots-Nelson on Thursday in the 14u Power Pool TV Bracket, and her offense came through with two big innings in what became an 8-3 victory over Tennessee Mojo 2021 at the Aurora Sports Park. Madyson Manning (an Oklahoma commit) had a two-run double, and both Kasidi Pickering and Ashlyn Jones (Texas A&M) scored twice.
While the Hotshots scored five runs in the first inning to grab a lead, Guerin faced adversity in the second as two long pitch-after-pitch at-bats from Mojo's Emma Minghini (Penn State) and Claire Czajkowski put runners on first and second. They ultimately scored on a single from Jade Howard, but Guerin struck out the next two batters, showing she wouldn't be troubled by the rally.
"I was a little nervous, but I knew my offense had my back," said Guerin, who struck out seven batters and is also headed to Oklahoma. "I wasn't going to let anything bad happen. I was getting a little frustrated, and things like that can happen. I was excited, and deep down I knew we had it after we scored the early runs."
"That's what we see all the time, her ability to minimize trouble. You'll give up a walk or hit, but what she and the defense can do is get out of trouble," said Hotshots assistant coach Rick Vasquez. "Her changeup keeps the batters off balance all the time, and it's hard to get in a rhythm against her. It's a credit to her composure."
Manning's first-inning double was an impressive blast that bounced on the fly off the right-centerfield fence, and the Hotshots followed it up with RBI singles from Brooklyn Bockhaus and Kelsey Gaspard. The team had four runners reach in the third but went scoreless before bringing across three runs in the fourth.
"I'm thinking, just drive it. I have to score the two runners there," Manning said. "So I did it. I felt like we weren't hitting it in the gaps when we needed to there (in the third inning)."
In the fourth, Kennedy Powell (UCLA) reached on a bunt single, moved to third on a stolen base and error, then scored on a perfect bunt from Jones.
"Our offense over the last two months ... we've always been good at the short game and being able to execute at the top of the order," Vasquez added. "Now, we can surprise you at any time. We have power, we drive it in the alleys, and we have speed. Pressure on the defense has turned us into a very complete team; we knew we had the pitching and defense."
Mojo scored a run in the seventh; Lydia Coleman doubled with two outs and scored on a single from Sadie Saul (Arkansas).