It started with a power show on Mitchell Field at Red Morton Park in the opening game of the District 52 Little League tournament.
It finished on the diamond at Al Houghton Stadium in San Bernardino and the championship game of the West Region tournament, one game shy of the Little League World Series.
It was a season to remember for the 11-12-year-olds of the Pacifica American Little League Majors All-Stars, who knew from the outset of that 2014 season they had a chance to do something special. And — with 12 straight wins to claim championship banners in each the District 52, Section 3 and Division 2 tournaments — boy, did they.
“The first day I played Little League that year with the All-Star team, we knew we had a good chance of going that far,” said Cruise Thompson, a position player and pitcher with the team. “So, it was almost like they were expecting us to go.”
Pacifica American — sometimes referred to as Pac-Am, but more affectionately known as P-Town — went on to reach the West Region tournament in San Bernardino. Now five years later, the same tournament opened play Sunday, with the winner to be flown to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania as one of 16 teams to take part in the Little League World Series.
It seemed like the new normal for District 52, as the Belmont-Redwood Shores team had reached the West Region stage in 2013. But, recent years have proven just how tough a road it is. San Mateo National reached the Section 2 Northern California tournament championship game this year, but fell to Maidu-Roseville.
It has now been five years since a District 52 team has reached San Bernardino, with Pacifica American being the last to do so.
“Even the first day of practice, I pulled all the parents aside to say we have a good team and have a really good chance to do something special,” said Steve Falk, who managed Pacifica American that season. “I said, ‘look, we might be a little hard on them … we expect a lot out of them, and we’re going to go at it 100 percent and see what happens.’”
That mission turned into a labor of love for Steve Falk, whose son Christian Falk, a recent graduate of Serra, was one of the core players, along with Thompson, a recent Capuchino grad, and the dangerously powerful Elijah Ricks, who graduated from St. Francis-Mountain View in June.
“I looked forward to going to practice every day,” Steve Falk said. “They were just so fun to be around. ... They were like the movie ‘The Sandlot.’ They just went out there and it was everything fun and good.”
P-Town opened District 52 play with a statement win 26-0 over Redwood City West. The team launched eight home runs in the game, including two in one inning by Ricks, who finished the day with 10 RBIs. Through five wins in the tourney, Pacifica trailed just twice, answering a 5-0 deficit to San Mateo American with an eight-run rally in the third inning of an 8-7 win, and yielding two runs in the top of the first of the championship game to Belmont-Redwood Shores before tying it in the bottom of the frame and going on to a 6-4 victory to earn the District 52 banner.
“I knew we were going to be able to hit,” Steve Falk said. “That wasn’t a question. I just figured as long as we could play defense, we were going to be fine.”
The defense was tremendously adept.
Third baseman Chris Rodriguez, who recently finished his junior year at Sacred Heart Cathedral, anchored the hot corner for every pitch of the summer with the exception of the innings he logged on the pitcher’s mound. Second baseman Tyler Shaw not only proved a keen defensive two-sacker — he recorded the final assist of the Northern California championship-game victory 17-15 over Woodcreek — he played the position all the way through high school, serving as Serra’s starting second baseman as a senior in 2019.
First baseman Andrew Harkness, a recent graduate of Terra Nova, was a tall left-hander with a smooth feel around the bag. Justice Turner, a graduate of Riordan, was the team’s primary catcher, and a gritty one at that. The platoon at shortstop between Christian Falk and the left-handed throwing Thompson — both also served as two of the team’s top pitchers — rotated seamlessly and performed consistently.
Ricks was the most advanced player. In addition to being Pacifica’s most feared hitter, and providing a power arm on the mound, he patrolled center field much to the credit of the uniform number he wore — No. 24.
The team rounded out with Nate Azzopardi (a Serra grad), Shane Hawkins (an incoming senior at St. Ignatius), and Spencer Karalius, Jordan Salgado and Mateo Jimenez (all three now incoming seniors at Terra Nova).
Each of the 12 players were on a varsity roster — most in baseball, though Azzopardi played football exclusively, while Turner focused on basketball — at their respective high schools for the 2018-19 school year.
The core group had played together in Pacifica since age 7, first forming the Pacifica Chaos travel team founded by Pacifica American assistant coach Dave Shaw. What the team lacked, though, was the physical intimidation factor.
“Once we won … to get down there (to San Bernardino), we started looking up teams that were going to be there, we were like it’s going to be tough,” Steve Falk said. “Every team that was coming from the West, every one of them was really good.”
Steve Falk added there were plenty of players in the 11-12-year-old tournament that already stood over 6-feet tall, including the team from Hawaii that had five or six, he said.
“We were like, we don’t have any of those,” Falk said.
After losing three of their first four games in the six-team West Region tournament, Pacifica American advanced to the semifinals by virtue of the tiebreaker format. Then, Ricks, in a game featured on ESPN, pitched the team to a remarkable 1-0 victory over Hawaii — a team that had beaten Pacifica a week prior to open the tournament — to reach the championship game.
Ricks fired a two-hit shutout on a warm night at Al Houghton Stadium, striking out eight on just 74 pitches.
“You just don’t see many Little League games that are 1-0, especially two teams that at the time I think we were averaging double-digits in runs a game,” Steve Falk said.
Then came a crucial decision as to who to pitch in the championship game Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 against Mountain Ridge-Nevada. Christian Falk had four days rest since his previous appearance, but Thompson had six days rest after earning the team’s only other win of the tournament.
Pacifica went with Thompson, who yielded nine runs to Mountain Ridge in the first inning. Pacifica fell 11-2. Mountain Ridge advanced to the Little League World Series and went on to be named the U.S. champion, while Seoul Little League claimed the overall title.
In one of the most impressive displays throughout that summer, though, Thompson was a picture of calm following that game, as though he had just gotten done pitching a pickup game on the sandlot.
“I always have butterflies before I go out for a big game, but once I get out to the field it’s just another day playing baseball,” Thompson said.
It was hardly just another season, though, for the 12 players and four coaches — Len Harkness also served as an assistant coach, and Jeff Azzopardi filled in as an assistant coach for several games — who powered their way to a summer for the ages.
It was especially memorable for Thompson, who didn’t reside in Pacifica, but was allowed to play for Pacifica American as his San Bruno address was part of their geographical territory. The 2014 season marked the first and only year Thompson played Pacifica American Little League.
“That’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” Thompson said.