Northridge Little League National Champions : Players, Coaches Form a Family Portrait
Winning the Little League national championship requires more than ability from the players and coaches. Tolerance and understanding, dedication and determination are equally important. And a strong dose of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Northridge players and coaches virtually lived together for two months, practicing every day from the last week of June until the World Series championship game Saturday. The team became a family, with each member contributing.
A look at each member of the Northridge Little League national championship team:
John-Michael Baca: The son of Manager Larry Baca was one of two 11-year-olds on the team. The smallest player on the team at 4-foot-10, 85 pounds, he will add World Series experience to next season’s all-star team. Baca was added to the roster for the Western Regional and World Series, and played in the regional.
Matt Cassel: The youngest of the 12-year-old players, Cassel played with poise. The first baseman handled numerous ground balls because most right-handed batters swung late against the fastballs Northridge pitchers threw. Cassel led the team at the World Series with a batting average of .429.
Matt Cunningham: He began tournament play as a pitcher and center fielder, but his role changed drastically when catcher Jonathan Higashi was declared ineligible after divisional play. Cunningham had never played catcher, but excelled behind the plate and supplied power on offense.
Todd Delevie: Delevie had the job of backup catcher, and he performed with great enthusiasm. He warmed up pitchers in the bullpen and on the field between innings, wearing his catcher’s gear throughout every game. Delevie’s constant positive attitude rubbed off on his teammates.
Scott Drake Jr.: Fast and versatile, Drake played outfield and infield in a reserve role. He also hit well when given the opportunity. But his greatest contribution was as a pinch-runner. Drake scored several crucial runs with heads-up baserunning. Nicknamed Scooter.
Nathaniel Dunlap: The tallest Northridge player at 5-foot-11, Dunlap loomed large in the team’s success. He was a dominant pitcher, averaging more than two strikeouts an inning, and striking out six batters for every walk he allowed. Dunlap pitched a complete game to win the United States championship.
Matt Fisher: Smooth and fluid, Fisher played shortstop with grace. He transfers the ball from his glove to his throwing hand with the quickness of a major leaguer and never made a throwing error in tournament play. Weighing only 95 pounds, Fisher also hit with great power, batting fifth in the lineup.
Michael Frost: Frost batted about .700 in a reserve role through the first three tournaments, and finally was inserted in the starting lineup during regional and World Series play when Cunningham moved to catcher. Frost then played the position vacated by whoever was pitching.
Justin Gentile: Any team would love a leadoff hitter who hit five home runs in the first three all-star games, and that is just what Gentile provided Northridge. Gentile played second base when not pitching. He pitched a one-hitter in the World Series, throwing a changeup he called The Agony.
Spencer Gordon: The son of two attorneys, Gordon is quick-witted and clever. He is a solid cleanup hitter and hit two home runs in the World Series. As a right fielder, he started a Northridge triple play in the sectional tournament. His homer against Venezuela was the team’s final run of the season.
Michael Nesbit: Small and wiry, the athletic Nesbit was an outstanding defensive outfielder who was inserted to help protect leads late in games. He played two innings in the World Series final after center fielder Nathaniel Dunlap injured his thumb. Nesbit used his speed as a pinch-runner in most games.
David Teraoka: A powerful hitter and good first baseman, Teraoka had his shining moment come in the Western Regional final when starter Matt Cassel could not play because of an injured hand. Teraoka made several fine defensive plays and hit a key double off the fence in right field to spark the victory.
Peter Tuber: The grandson of former National League batting champion Pete Reiser played with the poise of a major leaguer. Tuber was unflappable, a characteristic that served him well on the mound. He notched three victories in the Western Regional and won his only World Series start.
Gregg Wallis: The only 11-year-old starter, Wallis provided a steady glove and accurate arm at third base. He played shallow, taking away opponents’ opportunities to bunt and daring them to swing away. Batting in the the ninth position, he contributed several key hits, including a handful of doubles.
Manager Larry Baca: Soft-spoken and kind, Baca is a model for anyone wishing to become a Little League manager. Thrust into the media spotlight, he never criticized a player and constantly tried to focus attention on the team. Emotional 12-year-old players need a steady hand to guide them through the roller-coaster ride of five consecutive tournaments, and Baca provided it in expert fashion.
Coach George Saul: He has been Baca’s close friend for nearly 30 years and his coaching partner for 15. Saul contributed sound technical coaching, quietly instructing players on an individual basis. Saul is the consummate Little League volunteer, involved because he loves kids and loves coaching. His dedication landed him in the World Series although it was the last thing on his mind.