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Seismic Series : Earthquake Is a Player in Northridge Team's Little League Victory

August 26, 1994|STEVE HENSON and SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — In the wake of this year's calamitous quake and in the thick of this month's baseball strike, a gang of Southern California youngsters found something to cheer about Thursday as Northridge became the national champions at the Little League World Series.

The 3-0 victory over a team from Springfield, Va., came on the strength of a one-hit shutout by pitcher Nathaniel Dunlap and a three-run homer by Spencer Gordon. Parents and boosters, who had traveled across the continent for the playoff game, cheered wildly, clad in custom-made T-shirts bearing the team's unofficial nickname--The Earthquake Kids.

The victory marked the third consecutive U.S. title to be awarded to a Southern California team, and put Northridge into the Little League World Series championship game, to be played Saturday against Maracaibo, Venezuela.

But its biggest impact was perhaps the psychological boost it will give the team's embattled hometown, which has waged an uphill fight for eight months against the devastation wrought by the Jan. 17 quake.

Sign-ups for Little League came two weeks after the magnitude 6.8 temblor, and as the Northridge players practiced for their chance at the World Series, the quake has never been far from their families' minds.

Quite literally, it was a shock that hit very close to home: An estimated two-thirds of the team's families had to move out of their homes after the quake.

The family of shortstop Matt Fisher is still living on the second floor of their quake-damaged house--two parents, three children and a dog. The first baseman's family, the Cassels, are still renting while their home repairs drag on. The parents of Spencer--the right fielder who hit the winning home run Thursday--lost their law office in the quake.

But even if it they hadn't had to wage a comeback against a natural disaster, the Northridge team would have made the record books. According to Little League Headquarters, Northridge is the first team from the Western Region to have sent three teams to the World Series. The community's team qualified in 1967 and again in 1975.

The victory also marked the third U.S. title in as many years for Southern California Little Leaguers.

Last year, Long Beach won not only the national championship, but the World Series, winning the title with a victory over a Panama team.

In 1992, the same Long Beach team won the national championship then lost in the World Series finale to the Philippines. Later, it was revealed that several Filipino players were overage and Long Beach was awarded the title.

The Northridge team got an early start on Thursday's victory, scoring all three of its runs in the first inning.

Justin Gentile--who just the day before had pitched a one-hitter of his own--led off with a double. Then Matt Cunningham reached base on an error, and one out later, Spencer hit a line drive over the center field fence.

"When I hit it, I thought it was a pop-up to center field, " said Spencer, who is 12. "Then I saw fans scramble for the ball, and I knew it was out (of the park)."

Meanwhile, Nathaniel Dunlap--a 5-foot-11 right-hander whose pitches have been clocked at 74 m.p.h.--managed to hold onto a no-hitter for 5 1/3 innings of the six-inning game.

The sole hit he gave up went to Springfield's Paul Weishar, who singled to right field. Then, after an error put runners on first and second, Dunlap struck out the last two batters to end the game.

"My teammates were telling me I was born to pitch this game," Dunlap said, "and except for (losing) the no-hitter, this is the greatest game I've been a part of."

Manager Larry Baca said that if the team wins the series, it will be due--at least partly--to January's disaster.

"Because of the quake," Baca said, "our kids played more baseball than they would have in other years.

"The mall was closed, and they spent most of their time on the field."

Saturday's game, which will also be played in Williamsport, will start at 12:40 p.m. and be carried by ABC-TV.

Henson reported from Williamsport and Hubler reported from Los Angeles.

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