By Kyle Koso
LAKE ELSINORE, CA – When the Firecrackers Rico 18u team made enough mistakes to deepen the hole they were in Friday, the only proper response was to fill up the boxscore and establish better footing.
After some careless errors allowed Athletics Mercado/Smith to post a 4-1 lead at Rosetta Canyon Sports Park in the top of the fifth inning, the Firecrackers saw their first five batters who came up in the bottom of the frame reach base safely. They all scored as well, fueling the comeback that eventually read as a 6-5 victory in the 18u championship game of the TC Nationals tournament. It’s the third title for Firecrackers Rico in the event’s 10-year history.
With the Athletics riding high after a comeback win over the Corona Angels in the semifinals, they took an early lead on a two-run homer from Keila Kamoku (who is committed to play at Ole Miss for college) in the second and an RBI double by McKenna Gibson (Tennessee) in the third. And in the fifth, a poor outfield throw and a couple other iffy decisions brought in another run as Quincee Lilio (Oklahoma) crossed home plate.
Rather than complain, the Firecrackers were uncontained as Sophia Nugent (Oklahoma) worked a bases-loaded walk to make it 4-2. Jazz Santos followed with a two-run single, and the squad added two more runs on a squeeze bunt from Emma Sellers (South Carolina) and a single by Addison Mettler.
“We try to focus on how we play the game. We always want to recognize when we make a mistake, but we aren’t lost in outcomes,” said Firecrackers head coach Tony Rico. “You do that, you start to press and stress too much, and the anxiety takes over. What happens next? That’s what we’re trying to do at this level, develop them for college. We were one play better than Mercado today, that’s all it was. They are one of the best teams in the country.”
“Tony focuses on keeping us calm in these situations, and a thing we try to do is slow the game down,” said Santos, who also singled in the first inning. “I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous there in the fifth, but I was taking deep breaths and just being myself. Do what I usually do, and drive that ball to the right side. In a seven-inning game, there is a lot of time.”
Micaela Kastor was tasked with throwing every inning for the Firecrackers, and even as the temperature escalated she stayed composed. The Athletics got a one-out triple from Lilio in the top of the seventh, and she came around to score on a two-out single from Jordan Wolery (UCLA) to draw within 6-5. Kastor wrapped it up with a grounder to second base, closing with no walks, one hit batter and four strikeouts, and the celebration was on.
“We are such a solid organization, and we know how to pick ourselves up and keep the energy going in the dugout,” Kastor said. “It was such a special moment, knowing that pitching my heart out and going back in the dugout just knowing my offense is going to come through. We just play for each other … you keep going because you know it will pay off in the end and be worth it. We had that trophy in mind all day.”
“She is a unique player and person,” Rico added. “She has an extreme amount of confidence and is learning to adapt to the stress at this level. She’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Rico finished his comments with another dose of praise for Athletics Mercado, and then returned to the pleasure of seeing his roster come up with the correct answers during the strain and drain of a championship showdown.
“We had a rough last three or four years,” he said. “I would be lying if I said emotionally you’re not for these kids, but you can’t play the game that way. If we win but don’t make good decisions, we’re really not developing. It feels good when we made the right decisions and the plays went our way.”