Kyle Koso 2015-11-24 04:46:45
The 2016 Sparkler/Fireworks/Sparkler Juniors fastpitch tournaments, operated by Triple Crown Sports, managed to pull off the unique feat of being a spectacular success while looking downright routine and precise throughout the process. Located in and around the Denver metro area, the Sparkler and Fireworks tournaments function as a setting for the nation’s most talented and competitive squads in 16u and 18u fastpitch to be fully challenged. All this passion and skill level logically draws a huge number of college programs, which makes the event a mandatory recruiting showpiece. Overall, this year’s event had 800 teams from 45 states as well as Canada and Australia. More than 40,000 room nights were booked at hotels; partnerships with local businesses, sponsors, vendors, local governments and others allowed the event to fully meet the expectations of coaches, parents and players. “Triple Crown is certainly happy about the prominence and popularity of this event, which is the largest convergence moment in the world of fastpitch softball,” said tournament director Stephanie Klaviter. “But we all take more joy in watching the amazing competition, opening doors for athletes in terms of their college futures, and helping these girls see what is possible through playing the sport. Discipline, teamwork and passion can be such enormous factors in the lives of young women. “We are grateful for our partners, our hard-working and professional staffers, and for the chance to do it all again next year.” 18u Super 64 A year ago, the Texas Sudden Impact Gold-Dutton team played in a high-quality event and won seven of eight games against notable competition, but struggled with injuries afterward and didn’t quite show its abilities when they hit the field for the 2014 Sparkler/ Fireworks. In 2015, the memories of how good they looked and a hunger to put it on display for the big show in Colorado had the roster in overdrive from the start. By the time the championship bracket for the 18’s took the stage, the Impact Gold had no doubt it was prepared to win it all. And they did, closing the event with an 11-2 victory against Firecrackers-Rico. “This team has been together quite a while, and for them, it’s been something that’s building,” said coach Tim Dutton. “Even though we didn’t end last year in the way we’d hoped, the kids had showed themselves what they were capable of. They knew they could play with the best in the country, and we came into the (2015) event with championship aspirations.” In the final bracket, the Impact Gold worked through to a 4-1 victory against Firecrackers DFW-Poole before getting a severe test by a gritty team from Oklahoma, the Gametime Stars Gold-Fisher. The Stars’ potent offense hammered away early and often, and the Impact Gold was trailing heading into the seventh inning. “That Gametime Stars game shook us up a bit, for sure. They hit four home runs off us, and off a couple of different pitchers,” Dutton said. “We hadn’t been hit like that for a long time. Midway through the game, you’re thinking, ‘What the heck is going on?’” After tying the game, the Impact Gold loaded the bases and brought up Amber Serrett to bat. She launched a walk-off grand slam, something the program will always remember fondly now that she’s on the roster at LSU. “From there, we had the feeling that thing can really happen for us,” Dutton added. “We got an early lead against the (Miami) Stingrays in the next game (which became a 5-1 win), and then had it going our way against Rico’s team. We’ve played them five times I think and are 4-1 overall; our girls just don’t get intimidated by that kind of game.” Shelby McGlaun, now playing for Baylor, was the winning pitcher for Impact Gold in the title game. The team ended the 2015 campaign ranked No. 11 overall in USA Club Rankings, and they beat teams ranked fourth, 17th, 36th and 39th on the way to the title. Dutton said he expects a salty roster to make another trip to Colorado, with five or six returners, some new faces, and a cluster of players moving up from the organization’s 16u program that finished second at the Sparkler/Fireworks. 16u Super 32 Featuring a roster overflowing with players already having their college softball futures decided, the Firecrackers AZ-Hinkle came to Colorado armed with talent and confidence. Whether or not all the individual pieces would come together to make a fearsome team was another question. Coach Jeff Hinkle said he saw his players begin to understand its power during a June national qualifier in New Mexico, where the team bulldozed the competition and won the final by forfeit. Then, during a team lunch right before the start of the Sparkler/Fireworks, Hinkle used an exercise he’s employed at corporate meetings where each individual is asked to state what they rely upon out of the other people in the room. “Their answers were just perfect. To see these thoughts come from 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds was amazing,” Hinkle said. “This group was loaded, with many players already committed to the largest college programs. And in the New Mexico event, we could feel something special start to happen, and that if they implement what we talk about, it would lead to team success, not just individual success.” In the first Super 32 elimination bracket, the Firecrackers went 3-0 and allowed just seven runs in those games. Hayley Busby (third baseman, team captain, heading to Virginia) had a two-homer game in the mix, while pitchers Samantha Martinez and Jessica Lynch held down the opposing offenses. In the Championship Bracket, the Firecrackers allowed one run in the first two games and rolled to the final against the NC Elite. Emotions were high, and the Elite pushed across an early run using small-ball tactics and were threatening to do more. Busby rallied the troops in a meeting in the pitching circle; the team turned a double play to end the inning, and the offense took off, scoring 13 runs and claiming the crown when the mercy rule kicked in. With a batting order that tortured defenses with several quick left-handed hitters, and a nearly airtight skill set when they were out in the field, the Firecrackers had the tools to take on all comers. “I like it when in our dugout, you can’t tell if we are up four runs or down four. When they show that kind of perseverance and confidence, I know they will win every time,” Hinkle added. “I can feel it with them. I love the fashion in which they play, how they pay attention to everything in every inning, and the way they execute.” With some mixing and matching with another Firecrackers team going forward, Hinkle believes the 18u version of the squad will be even more stacked than the 16s. The Sparkler Juniors event, which takes place in the same window as Sparkler/Fireworks, covers a huge swath of Northern Colorado. The games involved 240 teams from 27 states – 250 umpires suited up, and the event used 33 fields in six cities along the Front Range. The schedule included multiple all-star games that helped organize the recruiting aspect to the event, with 600 players taking part in that phase. There was a sprawling festival at the start of the tournament in Greeley featuring top-notch BBQ and extensive pin trading, and CBS Sports Network televised a National Pro Fastpitch game played in Greeley, as well as a game featuring two top power-pool teams in the event. 14u Open – Sparkler Juniors The SoCal Athletics Mercado/Smith squad breezed to four victories in pool play, and then started power pool action with a 22-3 victory, looking unstoppable at every turn. Of course, that’s when the game jumps up to bite you, and Mercado/Smith was dispatched to the losers’ bracket after a 5-1 loss to Central Coast Athletics-Augustine. Those teams would meet again as Mercado/Smith fought through the draw, topping CCA by a 6-2 margin to claim one of eight spots in the power pool championship bracket. The first step was facing Lil Rebels RC (Nevada), where Mercado/Smith jumped ahead with four runs on an RBI single by Raylean Guiterrez, a sacrifice fly by Paige Smith, and a two-run home run by Kinzie Hansen in the first inning. The result was a 9-0 victory for Mercado/Smith; Paige Smith added a homer in the third. Starting pitcher Paulina Johnson allowed just two hits in the shutout. In the title game, Mercado/Smith played the Suncats (Arizona), who had beaten them earlier in the tourney in a televised contest that didn’t count in the bracket. Hungry for revenge, Mercado/Smith never trailed after scoring three runs in the fifth on a two-run homer by Smith and an RBI single by Guiterrez. Makala Jordan pitched all seven innings to earn the win; Jordan hadn’t pitched much in the event, but coach Dave Mercado said he had a feeling Jordan would muzzle the potent Suncats offense. “We played a bunch of really tough games out there, starting with the FC Brashear game (a 4-2 win in pool play). This game was packed,” said coach Mark Smith. “Then we played the first of two really close games versus the Georgia Impact. Both games came down to the wire. Next was the TV game with the Suncats, and this game was crazy. Many NCAA coaches told us it felt like a NCAA World Series game. “After a win in bracket play we came out a little flat against the Central Coast A’s. After this game it became our goal to play them again and send the home. We got that chance two games later. Then we got the Georgia Impact again, winning a close one with a couple big home runs. We then got the chance to play Suncats in the final, and again our girls’ goal was to get revenge for the earlier loss. And that’s just what they did.” Not surprisingly, the Mercado/Smith team went on to win the Triple Crown 14u World Series in San Diego later in the summer, going 8-0 overall. 12u Open -- Sparkler Juniors The Mizuno Storm-Holtorf (Arizona) team was situated well under the radar after splitting four pool games, but the roster’s savvy and stability under pressure began to make a difference as the stakes got higher. In the first elimination bracket, the Storm faced three teams that were ranked higher after pool play, but it allowed just seven runs overall in those matchups and earned a spot in the final eight of the Gold championship bracket. Landyn Bruce was the starting pitcher for the Storm in the final seven games; in both the semifinal and final, she took the ball early and gave way to reliever Kendal Gutierrez, who got the win each time. The semifinal came against the Aces Express (Texas) and closed with a 7-4 score. Kayt Leyvas had three hits. “Landyn was our ace all year, and carried us through the Sparkler. She deserves a lot of credit for how well she competed and how she persevered,” said Storm coach Ronnie Holtorf. “Kendal, on the other hand, probably did not even expect to pitch, especially in the semis and championship. So for her to come in, composed and confident, in both games, speaks volumes to the competitor she is. She was phenomenal and gave our team a sense of calm in both games.” The final against Texas Impact Gold-Elder was a tense 4-2 affair. Jocey Erickson hit a two-out double in the top of the seventh to score two runs, and earlier in the inning Gutierrez laid down a suicide squeeze with one out to score Nicole Hoffman to tie the game. “Without those big hits we may not have won the Sparkler, but it was our defense that truly won the girls the championship. We were making plays all over the field,” Holtorf said. “Both routine and spectacular, infield and outfield. We may have been out-hit and even out-pitched at times, but nobody there played team defense like we did. As a coach, fan and parent, it was awesome to watch.”
Published by Baseball Magazine. View All Articles.