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It Comes Down to 1 Game : Little League: Gentile to start for Northridge against Venezuela for World Series title.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Distractions were at a peak for Northridge Little Leaguers as the U.S. champion team began practice Friday.

A horde of television cameras and reporters greeted the players, who responded nonchalantly and began stretching and playing catch.

Midway through the workout, Manager Larry Baca gathered the players at the pitcher’s mound and reminded them that this practice was indeed special.

“He told us it would be our last workout together, and to enjoy it fully,” said Spencer Gordon, the team’s right fielder. “Then he thanked us for putting in so much work.”

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Northridge will face Maracaibo, Venezuela, today at 12:40 p.m. PDT for the World Series championship. The game will be televised live on Channel 7.

Taking time to thank the players was typical of Baca and his assistant, George Saul. The men have been close friends for years, meeting in the National Guard in the 1960s. They have coached Little League and American Legion teams together for 15 years.

They are appreciated by the players and parents for their low-key approach. The spotlight has consistently been on the players, which is precisely how Baca and Saul want it.

“The kids have done all the work,” Baca said. “Not a single player missed a single practice this entire all-star season. That’s pretty amazing. I’d tell them to get to practice early to stretch, and you know what, they were all there before I was every day.”

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The dedication paid off. Northridge (20-1) defeated Springfield, Va., on one-hit shutouts Wednesday and Thursday to win the national championship.

Venezuela, however, will offer Northridge its most severe test. The team is 4-0 in Series play and defeated Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 10-1, Thursday for the international championship, hitting four home runs.

Cesar Hidalgo, a right-hander who throws harder than any pitcher Northridge has faced, most likely will start. In a 4-1 victory over Chinese Taipei on Tuesday, Hidalgo struck out the first 12 batters and finished with 15 strikeouts.

“When I saw him pitch, I said there’s no way he’s 12 years old,” said Matt Cassel, the Northridge first baseman.

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But the same could be said of Northridge pitchers Nathaniel Dunlap and Peter Tuber, tall boys with live arms.

Neither of them will start today, however. Although Baca said Tuber would start, he changed his mind Friday and selected right-hander Justin Gentile, who defeated Virginia on a one-hitter Wednesday.

Northridge parents and players have speculated all week about whether the Venezuelan players are of legal age.

Little League has cracked down on violations since the Philippine team was stripped of its World Series championship in 1992 after it was revealed that players were over-age and lived outside league boundaries. Verification is still left to local districts, but Little League Headquarters has provided stronger enforcement, disqualifying several teams from the Far East as well as the team from the Dominican Republic last year.

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Still, short of creating an investigative team, Little League cannot be sure all of its rules are followed.

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