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National Champions Are Still Only Boys at Heart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His team had reached a mountaintop, winning the championship of the United States, and all Matt Cassel wanted to do was roll down a hill.

His jersey was untucked, his pants were stained with brick dust and his face was abeam. The Northridge first baseman had singled twice and made a sparkling defensive play in the team’s 3-0 victory over Springfield, Va., Thursday before 20,000.

Yet 30 minutes after the game, he felt like any other 12-year-old boy.

A steep, grassy hill leads from the team dormitories to the field, the kind of hill a kid likes to roll down crazily, then crawl back up.

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“I knew things were going to work out today,” Cassel said, grabbing teammate Matt Cunningham around the neck and playfully wrestling him to the ground.

Northridge players were strewn all over the turf moments after the game, laying flat on their backs in feigned exhaustion after having circled the outfield in a victory lap.

Manager Larry Baca and Coach George Saul gathered the team on the first-base line for the type of postgame chat teams all over the country engage in. Baca sat cross-legged on the ground and the players crowded around him, yanking blades of grass from the ground and tossing them at one another.

Northridge (20-1), No. 1 in the nation, is a Little League team through and through.

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The boys behave like prize puppies. They have what it takes to win trophy after trophy, and they know it. They play the game, then they just plain play.

For a victory meal, they feasted on hot dogs and baked beans served on paper plates. “These are really good hot dogs,” said third baseman Gregg Wallis in all seriousness to a trio of teammates.

Parents were invited into the dormitory area for the first time all week, and everyone milled around, eating and congratulating one another.

All the back-slapping made some players restless. Scooter Drake punched his father’s arm lightly and said, “C’mon Dad, let’s go play Ping-Pong.”

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A few players separated themselves from the celebration, choosing to sit with their food on the lawn overlooking the stadium.

“You don’t have anybody bugging you here. You can put your mind at rest,” David Teraoka said.

Next to Teraoka sat Peter Tuber, an intense, quiet boy who will be the starting pitcher Saturday in the World Series championship against Maracaibo, Venezuela.

“Thoughts about Saturday are starting to come to me,” he said between bites. “I’m just gonna throw hard and have my pitches working.”

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Nathaniel Dunlap, who pitched a one-hitter in Thursday’s victory, took a seat and told Tuber, “You’re going to do good on Saturday, Pete.”

Tuber’s mind had already wandered, however. He told Dunlap, “I signed an autograph to this one kid, and he said, ‘Nice pitching,’ like I’d pitched today.”

They shared the laugh, then Tuber continued, “And I got two hugs from girls.”

Teraoka chimed in, “I got two hugs too.”

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“Yeah, from your parents,” replied Tuber gently, and the three boys laughed heartily.

They were champions of their nation, they were goofy kids, and from a hill in Williamsport, life could not have been better.

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