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Northridge in Little League World Series

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a 10-run sixth inning to clinch a game in which the lead changed hands several times, the Little Leaguers of Northridge defeated Waianae, Hawaii, 17-7, in the Western Regional final Friday night and advanced to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

This will mark the third time Northridge Little League has advanced to the World Series, also reaching Williamsport in 1967 and 1975. Northridge is the only league from the Western Region to advance to the World Series three times.

Long Beach won the world series last year. The last time a San Fernando Valley team won was 1963, when Granada Hills won the championship.

This year, Northridge will open against Brooklyn, Minn., the champion of the Central Region, Monday at 4 p.m. PDT.

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Until the sixth inning, Friday’s game against Waianae was a cliffhanger. The score was 7-7 when Northridge’s Matt Cunningham led off with a homer. Later that inning he hit a grand slam.

Nathaniel Dunlap and Matt Fisher also homered for Northridge, which pounded 18 hits.

Peter Tuber (5-0) earned the victory with 5 1/3 innings of strong relief, striking out 11.

Northridge’s record stands at 17-0.

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The Northridge team’s parents celebrated the victory with their emotions flowing.

“It’s like the best thing in the world,” said Debbie Dunlap, whose son Nathaniel is the team’s top pitcher.

“This whole thing is like a dream.”

For many parents of the Northridge players, that dream began to take shape as the team cruised through the tournament and became a reality Friday in San Bernardino.

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Now, many of them will cheer their kids in Williamsport.

A contingent of Northridge parents and supporters will leave from Los Angeles International Airport for the home of the World Series this morning about the same time the players and coaches depart on a chartered flight.

But Friday night, their attention was on the game and not airline tickets and hotel reservations.

They sat together, an excitable band of about 300, on the first base cement bleachers of the packed stadium, cheering every run scored by their boys and every out recorded against Hawaii.

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All the yelling and screaming was, some said, a positive way to release some of the tensions of a difficult year in which many suffered serious damage to their homes because of the Jan. 17 earthquake.

“We are still out of our home and (living) in a rental,” said Barbara Casell, whose son Matt is the team’s starting first baseman. “There has been so much stress that it has been unbelievable. This has been such a nice escape for everybody.”

The Northridge cheering section got a good jump on their Hawaiian counterparts in the top of the first inning, when Fisher hit a three-run home run with two out to give his team a 3-0 lead.

Fisher’s father, Jack, stood up in the first row and pumped his arms in the air as the crowd behind him whooped it up.

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“We’ve had this dream and the boys are beginning to fulfill it,” he said when the inning ended. “Everyone of our kids has devoted so much time to this. And the parents too. . . . About 70% of them (parents) had to move out of their houses because of the earthquake.

“We are living in the second floor of our house. I had to gut the whole first floor. Five of us and a dog. It’s been quite a crazy time.”

Soon after his son’s home run, the tide turned as Hawaii rallied for four runs in the bottom of the inning. Suddenly, the mood on the Northridge side became more subdued, except for a steady flow of encouragement to the players on the field.

Some, perhaps sensing that Hawaii might win the game, tried to put things in perspective. A loss for Northridge, which had not been beaten in the double-elimination tournament, would not have been catastrophic since once-beaten Hawaii had to defeat Northridge twice to win the regional.

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But, still, the possibility was there.

“The kids made it this far, so whatever happens from now on is pure gravy,” said Tim Cunningham, whose son Matt is the team’s catcher.

By the bottom of the second inning, after Hawaii took a 6-3 lead, it looked like Northridge would have to settle for the gravy angle. Or at least a second game.

But Northridge scored four runs in the top of the third to regain the lead, 7-6, and all was well again. Until the bottom of the fifth, that is, when a Hawaii home run tied the score, 7-7. The Northridge side held its collective breath.

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“My hands are shaking,” said Lynn Wallis, mother of Northridge third baseman Gregg Wallis. “We are a little nervous today. I don’t think one parent on our team slept last night. I know I didn’t.”

Wallis sat next to Cassel and the two women jumped and gave each other high-fives at every Northridge hit.

“We are very lucky because this particular group of parents is very close,” Wallis said.

* RELATED STORY: C1

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