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Northridge Little League National Champions : Making a Run at Glory and Fun : Little League: Dream season was two years in the making for Northridge's U.S. champions.

August 29, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dream began two years ago with a group of 10-year-old Northridge boys who traveled to Port Hueneme for a junior baseball tournament. Nathaniel Dunlap, Justin Gen tile, Matt Fisher and Matt Cunningham, this season's leaders, first showed their prowess in that tournament.

In the hours after the final game, in the flush of victory, their parents conspired over pizza and beers. The boys were still too young for the Little League World Series, but that did not stop proud fathers from making a brash prediction.

"In two years, we're going all the way," Jack Fisher recalled saying.

"We figured it was time to set a goal," Tim Cunningham said. "It was probably a pie-in-the-sky kind of thing, but the goal was to get to Williamsport."

Saturday, Northridge's dream ended with a 4-3 loss to the favored team from Maracaibo, Venezuela, in a rain-interrupted title game at the Little League World Series. Still, the Northridge players can call themselves national champions after a playoff stretch in which they won 20 games and lost two.

Their road to Williamsport, Pa., was marked by come-from-behind victories and controversy over an ineligible player that nearly disqualified the team in the early rounds. There was also the Jan. 17 earthquake that shook Northridge while, conversely, solidifying its Little League all-stars. With some players forced from their homes, with shopping malls and movie theaters closed, they focused on baseball.

"That was the only thing we could do," said Matt Cassel, the first baseman. "We played sports."

And they became "The Earthquake Kids," certified media darlings. It was as if they had dusted the rubble from their narrow shoulders to race to the ballpark. They were round-faced and eager, playing the game at a time when big-leaguers had deserted the fans, when stadiums sat empty. The kids played for glory and for fun.

Two years ago, the Northridge team swept through a junior baseball all-star tournament without a loss, said Joan Halbach, a tournament official.

"They went up against 42 teams and won the whole thing," said Tim Cunningham, whose son Matt played on the squad. "We thought, 'Well, we have some very good players.' "

Those players quickly became friends. Like their fathers, they dreamed of bigger victories. If they could stay together, perhaps add a few talented players, they might never lose.

First, they had to split up. The year after the junior tournament, as they turned 11 years old and joined Little League, the players were drafted by various teams in Northridge's two local leagues. They would not be reunited until after the season, when all-star teams formed to play postseason games.

In the meantime, Dunlap and Gentile and the others gathered on weeknights in the Fishers' backyard, swinging away inside a lighted batting cage. They congregated at the Northridge Little League complex for informal workouts on Sunday mornings.

"It is a baseball culture," Cunningham said. "A lot of guys spend a lot of time with their sons. You go over to our complex and you always see some dad hitting ground balls to his son."

Diligent practice was not enough for the 1993 Northridge all-stars. When the playoffs arrived, they were split into two teams, one for each local league. Both teams lost early. "They were shocked," Cunningham said.

In the following months, biology and a little paperwork conspired to mold this year's squad. Peter Tuber grew taller and started hitting the ball. Michael Frost gained confidence as he matured. Perhaps more importantly, the two Northridge leagues merged, which would allow for a stronger team when the 1994 playoffs rolled around. Heavy-hitting Gordon Spencer, among others, would join the original core of players. Everything seemed set for a run at the World Series.

Then the earthquake struck.

A number of the players' families, including the Cunninghams and the Cassels, were forced from their houses. Jack and Matt Fisher were in Riverside for an Amateur Athletic Union baseball tournament. When they rushed home, they found a scene that Jack described as looking "like the Poseidon Adventure." Only the backyard batting cage remained intact.

"We made sure that was working," Fisher said.

The Northridge Little League season started two weeks later, and troubles continued. Rain marred the opening day. The complex needed costly repairs and the annual fund-raiser had to be canceled.

"It costs a lot of money to run this league and send a team to Williamsport, but we couldn't make the kids go out and sell candy after the earthquake," said Cindy Begley, of the parents auxiliary. "We had planned a garage sale but everyone had thrown everything out because it was broken."

So "The Earthquake Kids" were born. Parents vowed to cover costs themselves while players returned to the diamond with renewed determination.

"The kids were able to focus on something they love, and that was good," said Pat Cunningham, Matt's mother. "They don't seem troubled in any way."

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