SPORTS: Wilder Firecracker pops this Fourth of July weekend

PORT ANGELES — Wilder Baseball fans can generally count on two things every Fourth of July:

Fireworks over Port Angeles Harbor and a Wilder championship run at the Dick Brown Memorial Firecracker Classic.

The North Olympic Peninsula all-star team has turned the annual baseball tournament at Port Angeles’ Civic Field into its own personal showcase since its inception.

With 10 tournament titles in the tournament’s first 11 years, victories at the Firecracker have become a given.

This year’s team, coming in fresh off a second-place finish at the Salem Post 9 Showcase Classic, appears ready to continue that Independence Day tradition as well.

Not that there’s any pressure, according to third-year Wilder outfielder/pitcher Alex Gillis of Sequim.

“Being on this team and always winning this tournament, I wouldn’t say [there’s] added pressure [to win],” Gillis said. “But there’s that definite ‘[We’ve] got to get going,’ [motivation]. This is a big tournament for us.

“It’s kind of a home pride kind of feel.”

Fourth-year Wilder (15-6 overall) manager Rob Merritt echoed Gillis’ statements.

“I think its more of a confidence,” Merritt said. “I tell the team that all the time . . . this is our home field, and we protect our home field. You just go have fun and play hard.

“If you play hard and get after it, it kind of takes care of itself. There’s really no pressure.”

Wilder kicks off its attempt at title No. 11 tonight when it takes on the Victoria Mariners at 7 p.m.

The Mariners are one of seven teams coming to Port Angeles this holiday weekend.

Wilder and the Mariners are joined by Oak Harbor Legion and Sequim in the Blue Division.

Those teams will battle it out during the next three days in a round robin format before feeding into playoff games on Sunday against its Red Division counterparts.

Teams in the Red Division include Kitsap Baseball (Kingston/Poulsbo), Blaze Baseball (South Kitsap), the Victoria Eagles and Coquitlam Reds (eastern Vancouver suburb).

Wilder split a pair of games with Oak Harbor and took 3-of-4 from Kitsap earlier this season.

After that, however, are a whole lot of new faces.

“It’s a whole new group, so I have no idea [what to expect],” Merritt said. “Usually the Victoria teams are pretty good, but I haven’t played Coquitlam in 15 years.”

Wilder has shown itself to have some serious pitching depth this summer.

The team’s staff runs more than 10 deep with the likes of A.J. Konopaski (Port Angeles), Cody Sullivan (Port Angeles), Spencer Middleton (Sequim), Austin McConnell (Chimacum) and Brandon Bancroft (Quilcene) at the front end.

Most everyone is healthy, although Konopaski (one of the team’s top three) is battling shoulder problems that kept him from pitching last weekend.

“If we have to we’ll bypass him again,” Merritt said. “We could push him back to possibly the championship. We’ve got options.

“We have 12 guys we can run out on the hill if we have to.”

It should help that the team’s bats came to life in Salem last weekend.

Wilder scored 36 runs in its first three games at the Oregon tournament. That included one game where four different players homered.

It wasn’t until the team’s 11-1 loss to Bellingham Post 7 in the championship game that Wilder ran out of gas.

“We’re fast and competitive when we want to be . . . when we turn it on,” Gillis said. “When we work as a unit we’re hard to be beat.”

The Firecracker isn’t big just because of its home pride implications.

It also sets the team up for postseason tournament time, with the Clackamas tournament next weekend being quickly followed by the state tourney in Ephrata on July 13-16.

“I think it just makes us better when we get to this tournament, and then it just steamrolls every tournament,” said Merritt, whose team went 2-2 at state last year.

“If I was looking for one significant thing [this weekend], it’s that hopefully we can see some good pitching . . . because once you get to the state tournament you see some horses.

“It’s tournament time. We just try to get our guys ready, get in a rotation and try and figure out who are the nine or 10 guys we’re really going to count on.”

Admission costs $4 for each day, with students 18 and under getting in for free.

Concessions, including hamburgers and hot dogs, will be sold all day.

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