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Lakeside all-stars San Bernardino bound

Fifth straight elimination-game win seals NorCal title
By: Kurt Johnson, The Press Tribune
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Six years ago, as his family returned to Granite Bay after watching his older brother participate in the Little League Baseball Western Regional tournament in San Bernardino, a six-year-old boy stated his intention to return to that location as a player himself. On Saturday afternoon in Danville, Nick Frank was on the mound with the chance to deliver on that dream. With a lot of help from 11 of his closest friends, Frank earned the right to play in the 2009 edition of that same tournament as Lakeside finished an amazing journey through the loser’s bracket of the Northern California Division 2 tourney with a 3-2 win over San Ramon. “At the start of my 12-year-old year I thought we had a chance to get there (San Bernardino),” Frank said. “I wanted to get back there.” After losing its opening game of this event one week ago, the Lakeside Major division all-stars took the hard route, winning five consecutive elimination games to earn the title. This banner joins the first two won by this group of 12-and 13-year-olds, who were unbeaten through the District 54 and Section 4 brackets before traveling to Osage Park in Danville last Saturday. The nature of the last two games was enough to give even the most even-keeled coach anxiety as Lakeside won a pair of nail-biters over San Ramon. “We knew from the first time we saw them play that San Ramon was going to be the team to beat,” said Lakeside manager Bill Rockefeller. “It turned out that they were very hard to beat.” In Saturday’s championship tussle, Frank and San Ramon starter Josh Domingo squared off in a pitcher’s duel, and except for a run of scoring in the fourth frame, this contest was largely dominated by pitching and defense. The first scoring chance went to the Bay Area powerhouse, as San Ramon jammed the bags in the second on a pair of walks and a ground ball the bounced off of Frank for an infield hit. The Lakeside right-hander was up to the task, however, as he got a comebacker from leadoff hitter Trent Kravitz to end the threat and leave the three runners out there. A two-out uprising gave San Ramon the first advantage in the top of the fourth. After Frank fanned the first two hitters, the bottom of the batting order got things going. A Zack Page single followed by a Peter Farina double put two in scoring position when Kravitz came up again, and this time he delivered with a two-run single. Rather than hang their heads, Lakeside answered right back as it had done all week long. “We never doubted that we would come back and win the tournament,” said center fielder Zach Hall. “We knew we were the club to do it.” After a flyout to open the home half of the fourth, Connor Briare and Grant Powers walked to set the table for Hall. With the fences at this yard set at 225 feet, 25 feet deeper than most Little League venues, the left-handed hitter got just enough of a Domingo offering to change the game and lift the fortunes of his team. “When I hit it, I thought it would hit the fence,” Hall said in discussing his three-run home run. “Then I thought he (the centerfielder) was going to catch it.” Neither happened as Hall’s high shot to center carried beyond the barrier to give Lakeside a one-run lead. “He got it up in the air,” Rockefeller said, “and the wind was pushing it back a little bit, but it had enough to get out.” It would have been nice for Lakeside, and for Rockefeller’s heart, if it could have been smooth sailing from there, but winning this title was not going to be easy. This Lakeside team has had a tendency to hit in bunches, and it appeared it would get more out of the fourth frame. Following the long ball, Matt Berry drew a walk, and San Ramon went to the bullpen, bringing in Sam Cabral to face Myles Slattery. The reserve third baseman beat out an infield single to create a dangerous situation, and after a bunt resulted in a force at third base for the second out, Frank had a chance to help himself. The Lakeside leadoff man delivered a sharp single back through the middle, but the relay back to the infield found its way in behind Slattery, who was attempting to return from a big turn at third base, for the final out. The escape act left the count at 3-2 with two stanzas left to play. With his pitch count heading up towards the legislated limit, Frank had his strongest inning in the fifth, setting down the side in order and preserving seven pitches for the final frame. A Mitch Hart single was the only action in the bottom of the fifth, sending the game to its decisive stanza with Lakeside clinging to the one-run advantage. Frank walked Matt Haworth on four pitches to open the inning, an ominous sign for Rockefeller, who was hoping to get as many outs as possible out of his starter. “The run through the loser’s bracket takes a toll on the pitching,” Rockefeller said. “Zach Hall helped a lot with his performance Thursday, but our choices were limited after Nick today.” San Ramon backup Umar Farooq, batting for the first time in the game, was next to face Frank, and Lakeside’s hurler got the most of his final toss of the day. With the Lakeside infield pinching the middle, Farooq hit bouncing ball back through the box and into the waiting glove of Hart. The shortstop stepped on the bag and flipped to first for a double play that eased the burden on the Lakeside bullpen. “The double play was big,” Frank said. “It was my best friend.” With the bases now empty and two outs, Rockefeller looked to Matt Steindorf to close things out. It was the first appearance of the entire postseason run for the right-hander, and the result was a single and a pair of walks as he battled the nerves of the immense moment. With Domingo coming to the plate in a bases-loaded, two-out situation, Lakeside made the move to the harder-throwing Dylan Keeney, looking for the difficult final out. “The hitter had not hit the fastball today and he didn’t hit it last night either, so we decided to go with Keeney in the situation,” Rockefeller said. “When I gave him the ball he look at me like I was crazy. I thought he was going to throw the ball back.” While nervousness may have been Keeney’s initial reaction, his brief relief stint was just what his team needed. A pair of called strikes put Domingo in a hole, and then the San Ramon No. 2 hitter chased a fastball in the dirt to end the game, and his team’s season. “Those first two strikes put all the pressure on the hitter,” Rockefeller said. “If I had walked out there an told Dylan to do it, I am not sure he could have thrown a better pitch in a better location than that ball in the dirt. It was a great location.” Pandemonium followed as the Lakeside squad and many of its supporters poured onto the infield to celebrate the achievement. While other teams from this area have knocked on the door of a trip to San Bernardino in recent years, none have managed to get through the talented teams of the Bay Area since Lakeside’s 2003 club visited historic Al Houghton Stadium. This group of Lakeside all-stars will now look to do that edition one better, as the winner of the Western Regional moves on to the ultimate Little League prize, the World Series in Williamsport, Penn. One of the greatest strengths of this Lakeside team should serve it well in Southern California. It is the same thing that allowed this talented group to win five straight must-win games over the last six days here in Danville. “We knew we had to take it one game at a time,” Hall said. His manager agrees, and says that his team has not allowed itself to look ahead despite the history and the well-known success of the 2003 team. “We have stressed one pitch, one play, one game at a time,” Rockefeller said. “(After the loss last Saturday) I knew we would win a couple of games, but pitching is so important. We got some great pitching all week and this team has great chemistry.” The Western Region tournament begins with pool play as six teams (Lakeside and the winners of the state titles in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Hawaii and Southern California) battle it out for one spot in Williamsport. Four pool play contests will eliminate two clubs, with the final four playing single-elimination to determine a winner. Lakeside opens with an 8 p.m. game Friday night against Nevada’s Leagacy Little League from Las Vegas, and then faces Arizona champion Arrowhead Little League from Glendale at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The final two pool-play contests follow on Monday and Wednesday (Aug. 10 and 12). Utah’s Cedar City American is the opponent at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 10 and then Hawaii’s Central East Maui Little League from Wailuku will be in the opposite dugout at 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 12. The Western Region semifinals are set for Friday, Aug. 14 and the championship game will air nationally on ESPN2 on Sunday, Aug. 16.