Firecrackers Rico Alumni 2022 Season Update - Volume Five

Kraig King

The 2022 NCAA softball season is flying by. Maybe it just appears to be going faster than it actually is because of all the wonderful athletes and games on the field we watch each week. As the calendar flips over to April some of our former Firecracker Rico seniors are heading into the home stretch of their collegiate careers, giving those of us who have watched them play over the years reason to try and slow down father time just a little. While we may not be able stop the clock from ticking down on the season, we can cherish each remaining moment and enjoy some of our incredible alumni and their amazing accomplishments from across the country. As we do each week, we check in and see what transpired on the diamond (Yes, there was another no-hitter) and chat with some of the ladies about their seasons to date.

Grace Lyons - Oklahoma

Winning games and hitting a lot of home runs is pretty much the norm at Oklahoma these days. While the long ball has become common in Norman, Oklahoma there is nothing remotely normal about hitting three-home runs in a single game. Senior shortstop Grace Lyons (2018) accomplished this feat on Tuesday night, March 29 against visiting Wichita State during a 10-1 (5 inning) victory. The defending National Champion Sooners are 30-0 and ranked #1 in the nation and rolling towards another College World Series in Oklahoma City. Lyons upped her batting average on the season to .420 with 12 homeruns, 32 RBI, 11 walks and 37 runs scored in 29 starts.

Firecrackers Softball: We have to start with your three-homerun game last night. That is pretty difficult to do, and you made it look so easy. How much time and work goes into having a night like this?

Grace Lyons: I love to focus on the word consistency. Both my mindset and work ethic are to be consistent in everything I do. Whether it’s hitting, fielding, my faith or my relationships. I strive to be consistent in every area of my life. This allows me to maintain a neutral mindset when both success and failure occur. As far as last nights success I put in the same effort each day so I can continue to grow as a player. Last night was great, but I struggled at the plate the previous weekend, so I take the outcomes with a grain of salt. My goal is to continue to grow as a player each day with the mindset of consistency.

F irecrackers Softball: Oklahoma is loaded with talent. How does it feel to be surrounded by a team full of all stars?

Grace Lyons: Man, it’s crazy to sit back and think about who I get to play with every day. From freshman to super seniors, we have a solid group of studs. Hitting behind Tiare (Jennings) and Jocelyn (Alo) has been a great experience because I get to learn from each of their at-bats going into mine. Playing behind Jordy Bahl is so much fun because she brings passion and energy to the game. I love to compete with these Sooners because we play the game differently and I think this is evident in the softball world.

Firecrackers Softball: Where in the lineup are you the most comfortable and why?

Grace Lyons: I have bounced around the lineup throughout the course of my career. Honestly, I think I have hit in every spot 1-9 in the lineup. I am simply thankful to be in the lineup, so wherever coach puts me I will take it. But, if I were to choose, I like the three, four and five spots because I am able to have runners in scoring position and also have chances to lead off an inning later in the game.

Emma Clark - Notre Dame

Irish senior outfielder Emma Clark (2018) is wrapping up her career in South Bend, Indiana for Notre Dame as the same consistent, productive hitter she has been since the beginning. The Mater Dei graduate is batting .417 in 2022, keeping her career batting average up over .400 at .405. Throw in 16 RBI, 26 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases the left-handed batter has helped lead the Irish to a record of (23-6, 4-0 in the ACC). The way Notre Dame is playing and hitting their stride at the right time, the Irish are going to be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament come May. With the numbers, and quality at-bats Clark provides I wouldn’t bet against Notre Dame going deep into the super regionals.

Firecrackers Softball: Both you and the team are off to a terrific start this season. After four years in the system what is different this year? What do you attribute to the success?

Emma Clark: This year we put an additional emphasis on the mental side of our game. We have been working with a mental performance coach (Dr. Selking) and the work we have put in with her is evident in our performance during high intensity situations and games. It’s been fulfilling to see all the work we have put in mentally and physically come to fruition. This is the most cohesive and selfless team I have had the privilege of playing with, and I can’t wait to show everyone what we can do in the post season.

Firecrackers Softball: The gold helmets the Irish broke out for the Duke series look really cool. Whose idea was it to adapt the football helmet look using real gold and what is your opinion of them?

Emma Clark: The gold helmets are used by every sport on campus who wear a helmet, and the only thing that prevented softball from adopting them earlier was approval issues. Our gold is slightly matted in order to comply with regulations, but we LOVE them. It is just another thing that separates Notre Dame and connects us with the amazing traditions surrounding athletics at this university.

Firecrackers Softball: With this being your last season in South Bend are you able to enjoy the final months of the season and your softball career without getting sentimental?

Emma Clark: With this being my last season I have been taking in every moment and cherishing the time I have left. In recognizing my time with this sport is coming to a close I have fallen in love with game all over again, making it all the more fun. I have enjoyed playing this season more than ever because of the gratitude I feel being able to spend every day with my best friends and competing. Although, I am extremely excited for what my future holds. I wish I could put the rest of the season in slow motion so I would have more time doing what I love with the people I love.

Ali Kilponen - LSU

Did I mention there was another no-hitter tossed this past week? Well, there was, and it was a gem thrown by LSU pitcher Ali Kilponen (2018) down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on March 23rd against Nichols State. The 6’0 redshirt junior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado struck out eleven, walked two while going five complete innings in a 12-0 run-rule victory over the visiting Colonels. Ali followed up the No-No with a complete game victory over the powerful bats of the Arkansas Razorbacks, 7-4 on Sunday in Fayetteville, Arkansas. On the season Kilponen is 11-4 with a 2.06 ERA, 82 strikeouts and nine complete games, helping the Tigers to a 22-12 (3-3 SEC) record.

Firecrackers Softball: Congratulations on pitching a no-hitter. Can you describe the feeling and take us through the mental process? What pitchers were working?

A li Kilponen: I kept it very simple. Coach Beth (Torina) and I discussed some things that I could work on and fix after the Texas series. One of them being speeding up my body, so this was my main focus for the game. Throughout the game I was only thinking about executing my pitches with good body speed. Because of this it was very simple to trust myself and what I was doing on every pitch. During the game the one pitch that stood out for me and was super effective was my rise ball. It was jumping, had more movement and the velocity was up compared to previous games.

Firecrackers Softball: How much of a confidence boost did the no-hitter give you and how much did it help you against a strong Arkansas team?

Ali Kilponen: Going into the Arkansas series I knew they were a solid offense batter one through nine, but I tried the same mental approach I used against Nicholls State. Which was to focus on one thing that would allow my pitches to be as effective as possible. The midweek game with Nicholls was a good lead into the Arkansas series because it allowed me to sink my training and throw my pitches as I do in the bullpen every day. I would say that having confidence is a choice though and that a previous game can’t dictate whether I have confidence in myself or not. I must choose to believe in myself in every game, especially with it being a game of failure.

Firecrackers Softball: One last question. How exciting is it to play week in and week out in the SEC?

Ali Kilponen: Playing in the SEC is a different atmosphere. Every weekend is feels like post-season and it is beyond competitive where every pitch matters. There are so many talented players in the conference, so every weekend is a dog fight. However, the talent level is what makes it so fun to play in because anything can happen at any moment. We always talk about how Sunday is the “day of guts”, meaning the team with the most guts will win the last game of the series. It truly is an honor to be able to play in the SEC with all of the amazing players and fun to see what happens each weekend. I even watch some of the other games when I can. The feeling of making it to the NCAA Tournament is the feeling every team feels when playing one another each week. It is never easy, always intense and exhilarating to be a part of.

Anna Vines - UCLA

Over in Westwood at UCLA redshirt junior Anna Vines (2018) is having another terrific season for the #2 ranked Bruins. At the plate Vines is batting a solid .290 with 8 RBI, 12 walks and 21 runs scored in 27 starts for UCLA (28-3) (6-0, PAC 12), winners of 21 straight games. The smooth fielding second baseman has been exceptional on defense for the Bruins posting a .961 fielding percentage and providing quality leadership on the infield. Both on and off the field Anna Vines brings the energy and spark to a close-knit group striving as one to win another national championship for UCLA.

Firecrackers Softball: I must ask you this first. What is it like living and playing inside the Bruin Bubble?

Anna Vines: Living and playing inside the “Bruin Bubble” is so special. Before coming to UCLA, I didn’t really understand what it all meant. But throughout my college career I have come to not only appreciate the Bruin Bubble, but to respect it as well. The bubble is like a family and no matter what I am going through I know there is a group of amazing teammates, coaches and parents there that would do anything for me. We are a family and I believe that the success of the UCLA softball program comes from everyone having each other’s backs and putting the program first.

Firecrackers Softball: The team has won 21 games in a row and is firing on all cylinders. What do you feel is the key reason for the recent success?

Anna Vines: The key reason that we have been successful this season is because we have depth. Every single person on the team prepares every day to step onto the field in critical moments and wants to be the one to get it done. Lately we have really started to piece runs together by moving runners over and doing the important, unselfish things it takes to win. Our defense has been a big focus and allows us to stay in close ball games. Winning definitely relies on having great pitching and defense along with clutch hitting.

Firecrackers Softball: What drives and motivates you to keep working so hard?

Anna Vines: What drives me to work so hard every day is my teammates. I know that everything I do impacts the team. We are a team, we win together, and we lose together, so I want to put myself in a position to positively impact my teammates. In addition to that, I work hard because of my family and all the coaches who helped get me to UCLA. I respect the UCLA program and I act according to what being a Bruin is all about.