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Hitting Their Stride : Northridge Little League’s All-Star Team Is Undefeated

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She’s not listed on the score card, but as the members of the Northridge Little League all-star team will tell you, they owe a lot of their success to “Susan.”

She’s neither the shortstop nor a coach. She’s a bat.

To be precise Susan is a Louisville Slugger TXP, and when this team that boasts an 11-0 record plays a division tournament final tonight in Rialto, she’ll be there.

If she does her job, the team of 11- and 12-year-olds will advance to the Western Regional where they could play teams from Alaska, Washington and Hawaii. Even with a loss tonight, Northridge could still win the double-elimination tournament with a victory Sunday. If they do advance to the regional, it will be the first time a Valley team has gone that far since 1975, Coach Larry Baca said.

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“When we ride up to Rialto we talk about how we’re going to play the game, what we’re going to do,” said Matthew Fisher, 12, leaning against the dugout wall at a diamond in Northridge. “And we talk to our bats.”

Friday afternoon as the team practiced under a scorching sun, their talk was of baseball, Susan, and winning.

Of course, Susan is just a part of this team’s success. The players work hard, practicing two to 2 1/2 hours a day. They listen to their coaches. They encourage each other.

“I have faith in my team,” said Todd Delevie, 12. “We have skill all around.”

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Baca agrees. The team has an outstanding pitcher, Nathaniel Dunlap, but Baca adds that all the players are talented. Baca, who has been coaching Little League since 1981, says the team has something more vital than just physical talent. The players combine positive attitudes with a willingness to work together.

“If you start having kids that are selfish and thinking of their own stats, the team will suffer,” Baca said.

Team members resemble players in the big leagues in some respects. These boys of summer have rituals too, things that they do before a game, just to make sure that talent, skills and hard work equal produce another win.

Michael Nesbitt wears his socks inside out “for good luck.”

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Before every game, Matt Cunningham’s mom gives him a bag of “Big League Chew,” a fluorescent green, sweet-smelling bubble gum, that the team members pack in their mouths like chewing tobacco.

And then they have their talks with Susan.

Of course the conversation is pretty one-sided at first:

“We say, ‘You gotta get me a couple of hits today,’ ” Matthew Fisher explained.

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Or, “ ‘These guys think we can’t hit, so show ‘em,’ ” Peter Tuber added.

Many of the players admitted to at least some anxiety before a game that has such high stakes.

“I’m not really nervous,” Greg Wallace, 11, said confidently. Then he added: “I am a little bit, but our best pitcher is pitching.”

Spencer Gordon, 12, who plays right field, makes sure he rests well before each game.

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“I try not to get too nervous, because then I don’t do as well,” Gordon said.

There were plenty of reasons why this group of boys should not have done well this year. They are, after all, from Northridge, and many had their homes damaged and lives disrupted by the January earthquake. But baseball has provided solace, a way to forget, if only for a few innings.

Matt Cassel, 12, had to move out of his house after the quake. When there was no power in his neighborhood and everybody’s home was in shambles, he and his friends went to the diamond.

“That was the only thing we could do,” he said. “We just played sports.”

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If the team wins tonight, and wins the Western Regional, they will advance to the World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

But the team is taking it one step at a time, and talking to Susan all along the way. Does the bat ever talk back?

“Last game it did,” Peter said, laughing and slapping hands with Matthew. “We went five for five.”


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