This year marks the 31st season for Firecrackers Softball, one of the giant brands in club softball and now flexing muscle around the country in 20 states. Highlights for the organization run far and wide, with another impressive group suiting up at 16u, the Brashear/Hicks squad born and based in San Diego.
Bill Hicks runs that 16u team and doubles up for the organization with a 14u team with athletes hailing from San Diego and Orange County. Triple Crown event directors and others have taken note of Hicks’ determination to train his athletes and prepare them for future exploits in the sport, with the 16u team holding up just fine at large-scale events, even against 18u competition.
Hicks played multiple sports growing up and earned a scholarship to play basketball at San Diego State, then got into coaching when his daughter Katy started playing softball. She’s already a D-I signee, heading to George Mason in the fall of 2021.
Q: How did you get yourself up to speed in terms of softball?
A: It all started in 6u T-ball, where I was a helper dad, so I was always the guy who helped but made sure I was learning from the coaches. W went through 8u, and I was invited to be on board of directors of the local league. Coming through rec ball into 10u, I was learning how to do budgets and make giant schedules and just organize things.
I coached my daughter’s team for one year, and we did pretty good. About the time she hit first-year 12’s, she came to her Mom and I and asked if she could play All-Stars all year round, and we explained, that means you’ll be playing travel ball. This was in 2014; we found a team for her, she tried it for the fall season and absolutely fell in love. They asked if I would do some managerial tasks at the end of the year. I came on board, started doing the budgets and scheduling, and that’s how it grew … a little at a time.
Q: At some point, you decided to get into the dugout. How did that happen?
A: The next year, 2015, I got a call from a travel club in San Diego, and they asked if I would be willing to take that age group, that was the 2021 grad year. They did not have that age group in the organization, and I had been recommended by some people in the rec ball community. I said yes, so we had tryouts for a second-year 12u team, and that was our beginning.
Q: The softball scene in SoCal appears to have many strong personalities. How do you navigate that?
A: It does take a certain personality to do it. You have to be fair yet firm with how you run the team. You have to be open-minded. You have to know what you have and be willing to be a unique individual. In Southern California, there are so many personalities … it’s easy to say, I just want to be like that coach, emulate that person. But some of the most successful coaches you’ll see are the ones who don’t conform to what everyone else does. They don’t follow - they are the leaders, the rainmakers. It’s really why I felt such a connection with Sean Brashear, and above him, Tony Rico and the rest of the Firecrackers organization. It really fit what we were doing. You’ll see in Southern California, it’s very easy to pick out the originals, the trail blazers, the guys who have been doing it their own way.
The one thing about Firecrackers, and Firecrackers-Brashear specifically, is that allow you to do what you feel is best, to be unique, but they do that with guidance. With Sean, he’s always there to answer questions, but there are things I do that he supports that are new and innovative and different. They support you being an individual and give help when you need it. It’s a big reason why I enjoy being there.
Q: Once your daughter heads to George Mason, will you stay in the game?
A: Absolutely, I’m staying in. Sean’s big question has been what will I do after (Katy’s team), and the plan is to circle down to the group that’s 14’s now and work on their recruiting. After that, maybe we’ll put together a team that’s younger, but the plan is to keep right on going. I love what I do.
Q: What’s the main message your players and parents have to understand?
A: We try to help the players understand that they’ll get out of this experience exactly what they put in. We are fair in what we do in terms of showcasing; if they are going to work hard, then we will work hard for them. Everything goes two ways. Play hard, and we’ll coach you hard. To put it in one phrase, we are all in this together.
While it’s no surprise to event directors inside Triple Crown Sports, the youth softball community is getting another push forward in terms of skill and tenacity from the midsection of the nation, including Oklahoma.
In previous years, we’ve talked with and about Gametime Stars and OK Exclusive, and now it’s time for the spotlight to hit the Oklahoma Athletics, founded in 2010 by the father-son unit of Mike and Brian Madden. Brian Madden coaches the 18 Premier squad, which finished 2019 in the US Club Rankings Top 25. Dozens of A’s players have earned college scholarships, and the program now fields 35 teams, 26 in the greater Oklahoma City area.
Previous to his coaching run, Brian played baseball through high school, then at (D-II) Southern Nazarene University (Bethany, OK), where he was a two-time All-American, setting multiple program records before graduating in 2007. He coached baseball for one year as a graduate assistant, then moved up to a softball coaching position at SNU in 2009.
Q: From a distance, it sure seemed like you were all baseball, all the time. How did you get involved with softball?
A: I didn’t know how I’d take to it or like softball because I was a baseball guy, and I ended up loving it. I’m still at SNU, where I was an assistant for 11 years, and now in my first year as co-head coach.
Softball seemed like good avenue; I was helping my sister in the summer. I enjoyed working with the girls, they listened well and played hard. Girls are very team-orientated, and I saw it as fun, fast-paced and a different style of coaching. I jumped at the opportunity at SNU (with a small pay raise). I was nervous about it, but it worked out really well.
Q: Anytime you hang your own shingle and start your own club, there are no guarantees for success. How did the Athletics get started?
A: My dad and I were working with a group of 10-year olds at the time (2010); when my sister was younger, her team was called the Athletics, so that’s how we came up with the name … it was a solo team. That 10-year-old group became kind of our base team; eight of them stayed together through 18u ball, six went Division I and all of them played in college. I then had a group of 18-year-olds who were looking for something different, so we had them as an 18 Gold team and then dad’s 10u team. We hired a coach for 16u and 14u and then held tryouts, trying to get maybe four or five teams so we could open up a facility. We had 350 girls try out, so we filled eight teams right off the bat.
It grew from there; we weren’t planning on getting to 35 teams, but we kept expanding. We have five total national-caliber competitive teams, 18’s through 14’s.
Q: There’s a lot of pride and passion in softball anyway, but how fierce does it get in Oklahoma?
A: It’s become very competitive in Oklahoma over the past few years. How it breeds around here is kind of a love-hate thing. We dislike each other on the field, but we love that we are around that level of competition all the time. We are all trying to get better and one-up each other; we all work hard. We don’t have the quantity of talent that they have in Texas and California, but the teams we have that finished top 10 in PGF, those were all Oklahoma girls. We don’t draw from multiple states. Our players come from about a 100-mile radius, and we take a lot of pride in that. I think we are tough; we definitely have that underdog mentality. We know people don’t take Oklahoma super-seriously, and that eats at our coaching staff, for sure. We definitely have some of the best kids in the country and that’s been proven over the last few years.
Q: What is the guiding philosophy and mindset for the Athletics?
A: We want to be a family, and players know we care about them more deeply than just as a player. We want them to have a good career, we care about their families, and we try to keep the cost down as much as possible. We want them to feel they are developing as a player and a person, and that there are good people around to help them do that. We want to work hard, and we don’t make excuses. We want to be known as a blue-collar organization that gets after it and does the right thing. We’ll try to make you get better, reach the next level, and hope you have fun doing it.