Firecrackers Rico Alumni 2022 Season Update - Volume VIII

Kraig King

We are getting down to the nitty gritty with the 2022 NCAA softball season. In the blink of an eye we have arrived at the final weekend of the regular season with the NCAA tournament beginning later next week. Last week saw most of the conferences conclude their regular season schedules with the conference tournaments set to start this week. Apart from the PAC-12 and the Ivy League, conference tournaments will dominate the softball landscape across the country and on tv this coming weekend. The PAC-12 will join the fun in 2023 when they finally get with the times and have a tournament of their own. The Ivy League does offer an exciting alternative with a best two out of three playoff series between first place Princeton (25-14-2, 17-4 Ivy League) and second place Harvard (21-18, 15-6 Ivy League) this weekend in Princeton, New Jersey to determine the league championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Enough looking forward to what is to come, it is time now to look back at last week and check back in with some of our Firecracker Rico Alumni from across the land. Just about everywhere you looked someone from the Tony Rico softball family tree was making a serious impact on the field in meaningful games. We have an award winner from the PAC-12, an all time great in the BIG XII doing her thing and pitchers winning games in the Southeastern Conference. So, if you are ready, let’s check in with a few of the alumni and hear what they had to say about their week, their teams and their post-season expectations.

In Salt Lake City, Utah junior Julia Jimenez (2018) was named the PAC-12 Player of the Week for her performance against third-place Washington over the weekend. The Utes power-hitting third baseman went 5 for 10 (.500) with one homerun and three RBI as Utah (26-25. 8-13 PAC-12) took two out of the three games from the visiting Huskies. For the season Julia is batting an extremely solid .335 with 10 homeruns, 50 RBI, 17 walks, 10 doubles, one triple and 26 runs scored for the Utes. Don’t forget about the leather in the field either. Playing the hot-corner Jimenez has 54 putouts and 96 assists in 157 total chances for a fielding percentage of .955 on the season.

Firecrackers Softball: Congratulations on being named the PAC-12 Player of the Week. How fun was that? Can you explain the feeling and what it means to you?

Julia Jimenez: Being named the PAC-12 Player of the Week was a great feeling. My coach (Amy Hogue) called me and couldn’t wait to tell me. I have been working hard all year to even be noticed by this conference since I transferred from the BIG 1O (Michigan). It was a big blessing, especially playing on Mothers Day Weekend for my mom.

Firecrackers Softball: The PAC-12 season can be a grind. What keeps you motivated day in out day out?

Julia Jimenez: The Pac is a definitely a grind, but the thing that keeps me motivated is my teammates and the beautiful city that I live in. School and softball can be stressful at times but knowing that I can explore beautiful Salt Lake City after practice or on an off day is what I love the most. There are so many great things to do and see here it never gets old.

Firecrackers Softball: Looking towards next season. How important is it for the team to build off the success against Washington and finish strong this weekend at Oregon State?

Julia Jimenez: This coming weekend is very important for my team. We need to go out and compete at our highest level if we want to play in the post-season and have a strong finish. Our strong weekend against Washington gave us more confidence to go out and just compete. Everyone will see Utah in the post-season and we are determined to go a long way.

It is almost impossible to stay away from Norman, Oklahoma and Grace Lyons when talking about Firecrackers Rico Alumni. The junior shortstop completed the regular season portion of the Sooners schedule with 18 homeruns and 53 RBI while posting a .437 batting average in 135 at bats for #1 ranked Oklahoma (48-1, 17-1 BIG XII). Boomer Sooner swept rival Oklahoma State in The Bedlam Series for their tenth straight win after suffering their only defeat of the season last month to Texas. Defensively Lyons doesn’t skip a beat when it comes in comparison with her offense. The Peoria, Arizona native has excellent lateral movement and covers a lot of ground, helping the Sooners pitchers dominate their opponents. In 111 chances Grace has committed just six errors, statistics that put her at an elite level and earned her the BIG XII Defensive Player of the Year. This Oklahoma team doesn’t have many weaknesses, if any at all, so it will be shocking if the Sooners don’t repeat as National Champions in Oklahoma City in June.

Firecrackers Softball: Your head coach Patty Gasso said you were the best shortstop in the country on National TV during the Oklahoma State game Saturday. High praise from one of the most respected coaches in the game. How does it make you feel to have her announce to the country that you are the best there is at your position?

Grace Lyons: Much of my motivation comes from within, but I appreciated her saying that. I love defense and we have worked hard this year behind our pitchers.

Firecrackers Softball: From the outside looking in this team appears to be really close. How important is team chemistry and liking who you are playing and competing with?

Grace Lyons: Our team has so much fun together and it allows us to play free and loose on the field. We are all locked into the championship mindset which keeps us focused on the goal to compete every day with intent. We play for an audience of one and praise God win or lose.

Firecrackers Softball: Finish this statement. Oklahoma repeats as National Champions if..

G race Lyons: Oklahoma repeats as National Champions if we continue to work hard every day and with the intent to get better.

Brooke Vestal - Ole Miss

There is a pitcher at Ole Miss with and 8-1 record and a 2.50 ERA that keeps bringing us back down to the deep south and Oxford, Mississippi. That pitcher would be junior right-hander Brooke Vestal (2018) from New Bruanfels, Texas. On Saturday May 7th Brooke earned the win in a key conference game in Athens, Georgia against the host George Bulldogs. The victory allowed the Rebels (38-16, 12-12 in the SEC) to finish with a .500 record in the extremely tough and competitive South Eastern Conference, setting up a rematch with Georgia this week in the second round of the conference tournament. While it may not have been her best performance of the season Vestal battled throughout the game going 6.1 innings, striking out five while throwing an even one hundred pitches before leaving the game in the seventh.

Firecrackers Softball: How nice was it for you to have your offense score ten runs against Georgia this past weekend? Does it change how you approach the game when your offense is so productive?

Brooke Vestal: As a pitcher anytime your offense scores in the first inning it takes so much pressure off. Knowing you can just go out and attack the zone is very freeing for a pitcher. Our offense has been amazing all year and they really showed up against a tough Georgia team. This allowed me to go out and throw my game knowing that they had my back on offense and defense.

Firecrackers Softball: Pitching in the SEC can be stressful. Can you put into words what it is like when so much rides on every pitch?

Brooke Vestal: Every weekend feels like a super-regional in the SEC. Each series we have played has been high energy and high intensity. Every game matters in the SEC, especially in your own conference standings. The competition is so high and on any given day any team can win and that’s’ apparent by how close the race was this year.

Firecrackers Softball: Any preference of where you want to see Ole Miss sent for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament?

Brooke Vestal: I have no preference. As a team we haven’t put much thought into next week. We are just focusing on today and taking each game as it comes. We’re playing really well as a team and I am so excited to compete with this team in the post-season.

Next week we honor the seniors and the all-conference players.