Local players help NorCal 18U team capture nationals

Firecrackers come home champions
By: Jim Linsdau, Sports Editor
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A group of athletes coming from a widespread area may have helped change the fortunes of Northern California softball.

The NorCal Firecrackers 18-Under softball team calls Elk Grove their home, but the players are from as far away as Grass Valley and Fairfield, along with some from Rocklin and Lincoln. By dedicating themselves to the task ahead and committing to each other, this band of sisters made a little bit of history.

“It was an amazing ride with these girls,” said Firecrackers head coach Michael Thomas. “This journey for these girls has been almost unheard of.”

The “journey” was a number of tournaments played during the summer to try and qualify for the national Premier Girls Fast Pitch tournament. That meant not only traveling to Elk Grove to practice, but then to other parts of the state and beyond to compete.

Thomas said the Firecrackers organization is national and started in Southern California.  Northern California joined the organization a little more than four years ago, drawing girls from wherever they could.

Last season, the players had not had much time together, but won their first tournament. That qualified them for nationals, where they did not do well. This year started just the opposite, but then things began to turn around.

“It was the craziest thing. We just had to say, ‘Hey, we just haven’t hit our stride yet; just keep working,’” Thomas said. “Maybe we peaked too early last year and so maybe it was great motivation for this year.”

The team finished 23-9 this season, after winning 17 of their last 18 games, including an eighth-place finish in the Champions Cup Invitational in Irvine, where 96 teams competed.

That earned them an invite to Huntington Beach to compete in the 64-team Platinum Division of the PGFP Tournament held July 21-26.

After dropping one game in pool play, the Firecrackers caught on fire.

In bracket play, they won their first game 2-0; then went on to defeat the Ohana Tigers 7-4, SoCal Pumas 2-1, Texas Glory 7-5 and Artesia Punishers 9-2 to reach the semifinals.

Against the CenCal Dirt Dogs, it took extra innings, but the NorCal club emerged 6-5 victors in a thriller.

“As the games went on they kept winning,” Thomas said. “They just stayed disciplined and kept winning. It was pretty amazing.”

That semifinal win set the stage for the championship against one of Southern California’s strongest teams. A match-up Thomas described as sort of a “David against Goliath.”

Undaunted, the Firecrackers routed the USA Athletics for the championship.

In spite of the victory, their joy was mixed with the emotion of separation. Three of their players would be moving on, having played their last game for the Firecrackers.

“It is very rare in this sport to have a team, and parents, all on the same page,” said Thomas. “So they were happy about the championship, but it was a little muted because they felt like some of their sisters were no longer going to be on this team.”

But it will not end their softball careers.

Rocklin High senior Alina Gonzales, a catcher and infielder, signed to play for Minot State University. Senior Brianna Alston, who played centerfield for Rocklin High, will head for Mississippi Valley State University.

And from Bear River High, pitcher Kaitlyn Maddux has committed to Sonoma State University.

Others making commitments, but who still have a year left, are as follows: Rocklin pitcher and infielder Taylor Fitzgerald (verbal to University of California at Davis), Rocklin pitcher and infielder Nichole Sarra (verbal to Sonoma State) and Lincoln High’s Sophia Agundes, an infielder who is still undecided.

“The ride has been one of the best accomplishments of my coaching career and, again, I’ve been coaching for awhile,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing else that comes close to this. And it’s empowering for the young ladies to know that they can be champions too.

“It feels phenomenal.”