Knowing that speed is one of the roster’s strengths, the 18u Firecrackers-Rico softball team is almost crazily aggressive on the basepaths, and will sometimes run into outs trying so hard to advance.
Call it collateral damage that happens in pursuit of a larger cause.
Despite running (literally) into trouble a few times, the Firecrackers had the stronger offensive heartbeat Sunday during the Power Pool championship game, easing past Texas Glory-Shelton 4-0 at Aurora Sports Park. With sterling work from pitcher Brianna Jewett and airtight defense, the Firecrackers were able to survive an inconsistent start at Triple Crown’s Colorado Fireworks as well as some injuries.
Sunday, Jewett allowed just three hits; the Firecrackers took an early 1-0 lead on a home run from Julia Jimenez and scored again in the third. Two more runs came across in the fourth, one when Jimenez came so far off second base it compelled the Glory catcher to try for a pickoff, but no fielder was there to take the throw, and Jimenez came around to score.
“The dynamics of this team … we’re pretty speed-oriented. Our goal is to put the ball in play and put pressure on the other team,” said Firecrackers coach Tony Rico, whose team had runners thrown out in the first three innings. “You have to be patient when they are trying to make plays. So far it’s worked out in an up-and-down summer where we’re trying to get our defense untracked.”
“Up until Championship Day, we hadn’t been ahead in any games; we were chasing the score the entire week. But this day is a perfect example of things coming together, because I don’t think anybody would have bet on us giving up two runs in three games when we’re giving up two runs an inning.”
Jewett did walk two batters in the fifth inning but got out of a two-out threat with a flyout to left field. She struck out three batters, got eight groundball outs and a couple more on harmless pop flies – with the Glory winning three straight games in the bracket via shutout, Jewett needed to be sharp. Rico was quick to note his appreciation of coach Ron Weil, who called the pitches and was working in perfect sync with Jewett.
“As we got to the end of the tournament, I definitely had to step up and pitch a lot of games and throw a lot of innings, but everyone contributed,” said Jewett, a junior who has committed to attend Harvard. “A lot of the games we’d been coming back from behind, so it was great to get a lead and jump on them early. We say every pitch has a purpose, so you go in one inning at a time and finish out the game.”
Alyssa Pinto had two hits and an RBI for the Firecrackers, and Kaitlin Parsons bounced back from taking a pitch to the ribs to start the game and later singled and scored. Jimenez, a verbal commit to Michigan, added two hits as well.
“I had a 3-1 count, and I knew something was coming. I was waiting for a good pitch drive, and let loose on it,” Jimenez said about her home run to dead center, which didn’t seem to get more than 10 feet off the ground. “It felt good off the bat – wasn’t planning on it, but I wanted to hit it hard.
“We got it together and pushed through everything. There is pressure (on the Firecrackers), because all these girls have heart, and everyone competes for a spot. If you don’t compete at their level, you may not perform … you want to perform and make the team better.”
Taryn Antoine (LSU commit) had a double for the Glory; Mariah Nichols (Memphis commit) threw two scoreless innings in relief.
As the reigning back-to-back champions of the Triple Crown Fireworks Super 64 bracket, all the pressure was on Athletics – Mercado/Smith once again to deliver on Championship Sunday in Aurora.
Head coach David Mercado’s squad was up to the challenge, however, outlasting the EC Bullets, 6-3, to once again claim the crown in the 16u division.
“I think it shows how close this team is to each other,” said Mercado. “They’ve been playing together their whole lives and have really jelled to produce outcomes like this.”
The Bullets struck the first blow of the heavyweight bout, mashing a solo home run off starting pitcher Lexi Sosa in the bottom half of the first inning.
“She got a good hit off me,” said Sosa. “With that behind me, my teammates really calmed me down and I was able to focus on one batter at a time.”
It didn’t take long for the Athletics to respond. Catcher Kinzie Hansen led the top of the second inning off with a walk. Two batters later, with Hansen’s replacement runner at third, Paige Smith dialed up a sacrifice fly to tie the game at one.
Pitching with a lead, Lexi Sosa was able to make some key adjustments which seemed to fool the EC hitters. Through the next three innings, Sosa gave up just one walk and never let any one batter further than second base.
Offensively, Mercado looked for a little breathing room in the fourth inning. With two runners on, Alyssa Garcia delivered a monstrous 2-RBI single to give the Athletics the lead, 3-1. Lexi Sosa helped herself out with an RBI of her own to stretch the advantage, 4-1.
An inning later, EC threatened to climb back on top. The Bullets’ second extra-base hit plated two runs for EC and suddenly, the margin shrunk to one, 4-3.
“It’s important for us to match up inning for inning,” said Page Smith. “The quicker we can respond, the quicker we can stop their momentum and regain ours.”
Smith would have to wait until the top of the seventh inning for her chance to respond, but it was an opportunity she wouldn’t wasted. When she arrived at the plate, two runners already in scoring position. Smith promptly blasted a double to left field, scoring two runs and separating the Athletics from the Bullets, 6-3.
“They changed pitchers right before my at-bat,” explained Smith. “With a rise ball pitcher in then, with that wind, I knew I could keep my hands level and drive one.”
The Athletics then leaned on Shannon Bustamante, who had come in relief during the fifth inning, to close out the championship. Bustamante weathered the storm nicely, navigating through multiple scoring chances for the Bullets before forcing the final fly out to right field to seal the Super 64 title, 6-3.
“Shannon has been our go-to this week,” said Mercado. “Our pitching wasn’t as good as it normally is this week. We’ve nick-named Shannon ‘Engine 57’ because she put out so many fires this week.”
Impressively, Athletics – Mercado/Smith capped off its third straight championship with the same roster at the Triple Crown Fireworks tournament. The 2017 edition featured multiple come from behind victories, including a walk-off against a talented Firecrackers Brashear squad.
“It says a lot about this group of individuals that they didn’t take it lightly,” said Mercado “We know that when we come to this tournament, we’ll be facing the best in the country. For them to hold it together and play like they did is outstanding.”
Offense had come easy for the Georgia Impact National Team – Lewis, outscoring their opponents 93-19 in the first seven games of the Colorado Fireworks. So, when the team found themselves trailing to the Louisiana Gold 7-2 in the sixth inning of the 18U Elite championship game, players, coaches and fans were scratching their heads wondering what was going on.
“We didn’t do what we wanted to through the first five innings,” said head coach Logan Foulks. “I finally took myself out of the dugout and said it was up to them. This is the kind of team they are; they just keep fighting.”
Fighting is exactly what they did.
The Impact would score six runs in the bottom of the sixth to take an 8-7 lead and would hold on to win the 18U Elite championship.
“I am so proud of this team,” said Foulks. “When you are not getting the offensive production you are used to in innings one through five, it is easy to get discouraged. Instead, they stood up as a team and found a way to make it happen.”
The offensive explosion in the sixth was kickstarted by Janelle Mathis, a 2018 grad committed to Eastern Illinois. Mathis led off with a double and teammate Ashlynn Gunter followed up with an RBI double, knocking in Mathis. The onslaught would continue as Georgia State commit Olivia Davis recorded the third consecutive double of the inning for the Impact, and an RBI single by Bailee Zeitler would knock in Davis and Gunter cutting the Bomber lead to 7-5.
Future Georgia Southern outfielder Hannah Scarbrough would knock in Zeitler on a single, and the fourth double of the inning by Faith Shirley would score Scarbrough, knotting the game up at 7-7. A sacrifice fly by Lou Bowers brought home Shirley for what would be the winning run.
The Bombers jumped to an early 3-0 lead in the first inning and held the Impact scoreless through the first two. A two-run homer by Shirley would finally get the Impact on the board in the bottom of the third, cutting the deficit to 3-2. The Impact would load the bases with one out in the fourth inning, but could not capitalize.
“It felt amazing to hit that home run,” said Shirley. “I was just trying to make good contact with the ball and that’s exactly what I did.”
The Bombers would tack on one more run in the fourth, two in the fifth and another in the sixth giving them what was thought a comfortable lead at 7-2 going into the bottom of the sixth.
“We were a little down heading into the bottom of the sixth,” said Shirley. “But we got into a huddle as a team and told each other to pick it up and make something happen. As soon as we got people on base it became clear that we had a chance to win this.”
The Impact finished the tournament 8-1 and are headed back home tonight before leaving for Chicago on Tuesday to play in an event at Notre Dame, followed by the Demarini Invitational.