Casey Strezo is one of the only players from the San Mateo National Little League Majors All-Stars team that isn’t playing any baseball for the remainder of the summer.
After falling in the Northern California championship game Saturday to Maidu-Roseville in Castro Valley, National immediately began scrambling, with two of its players catching flights later that evening to play in a tournament in Cooperstown, New York.
The Cooperstown trips were part of a contingency plan in the event of National’s elimination. Four more Nats players are scheduled to play in Cooperstown later this summer. And two other Nats — Kurt Schaffer and Jordan Kiaaina — are scheduled to travel to Toyonaka, Japan to play on a tournament team as part of a cultural exchange program.
“Eight of our 12 kids had double team practices,” San Mateo National manager Dan Luzzi said. “I hate to say they turned the page quick, but [getting eliminated] wasn’t a reason to cry. Baseball, I’ve always said you can come back quick. … Have a good day and that’s all that matters.”
Strezo and his family got out of town too, but their vacation isn’t baseball related. Instead, they are vacationing in Oregon for some rest and relaxation.
Everything being equal, Strezo would rather be balling.
“I wish I was still playing,” Strezo said.
The National third baseman’s wish was in reference to the Little League International Tournament. Who can blame him? The Nats’ historic run saw the team win its first District 52 championship banner since 1998, its first Section 3 banner since 1974, and advance to the first Northern California championship game in the history of either San Mateo Little League team.
In other words, it was quite a ride. For those eight National players with other baseball commitments remaining this summer, the ride continues, just not under the Little League umbrella.
Josh Jacobs and Tommy Kane have already hit the reset button. After flying into Cooperstown Saturday night, their tournament team has played two games per day, posting a 6-0 record, with each Jacobs and Kane hitting home runs in the tournament, according to Luzzi.
The power game is something the Nats were just tapping in to as their Little League All-Stars ride was winding down. After hitting just one home run in District 52 play — a three-run homer by Jay Leder against Half Moon Bay in the second game of the tournament — National went through an eight-game homer drought, and wouldn’t connect again until the third game of the Nor Cal tournament when Soren Blanchard went deep with a first-inning solo shot against Madera.
National went on to total six home runs over their last four games.
Luzzi, and many others in National’s ranks, were convinced the power surge came from the team’s pregame batting-practice session prior to the breakout game against Madera. While on-field batting practice was prohibited through District 52 and Section 3 play, it was an option in the Northern California tournament on the auxiliary field at Five Canyons Park.
Whereas previously, National would take batting practice at their hometown Starting Line Up batting cages, then commute to a game, the on-field batting practice became standard operating procedure after the team hit three homers in the Madera game.
“So, we stayed with the same pregame routine,” Luzzi said. “Then we hit dinger after dinger. We hadn’t seen that all season. So, I’ll take them.”
Luzzi is done with baseball for the summer too. He is readying to start a new baseball venture in the fall, serving as an assistant coach with the new Nor Cal Sports Baseball Academy in San Mateo, founded by Drew Healy, that will field 9U and 10U tournament teams.
Luzzi will also be returning for his fourth year as a physical education teacher at LEAD Elementary School in San Mateo. While he has coached National in two of the past three years — he also managed the same core group of players in the 2017 District 52 9-10s tournament — none of his Nats players have ever been students at LEAD Elementary, which is located in San Mateo American territory. And many of American’s players in this years District 52 tourney are students of his.
As a Little League All-Stars coach, though, Luzzi is in a unique position, as he does not have a child on the Majors team. Most Little League coaches do. In fact, every team National played against this summer had a father-son, manager-player dynamic, according to Luzzi.
It was nine years ago, when he did have family on roster, that Luzzi started coaching San Mateo National Little League. His career started in 2010 when his nephew Troy Condin began playing in the league, and Luzzi coached him all the way through his 12-year-old season, finishing with the District 52 Superbowl Majors team in 2016.
“I fell in love with it when I was coaching my nephew,” Luzzi said. “I kept at it with him from T-ball to Majors. … As soon as he was done, I started doing district teams.”
Four other National players will travel to Cooperstown to play tournament baseball next week: Blanchard, Alejandro Formosa, Noah Greenspan and Franklin Kuo.
But the past three years — with National earning runner-up honors at the District 52 9-10s tournament in 2017, and again in the 10-11s tournament in 2018 — capped off by the historic run in 2019 was, indeed, a once in a lifetime experience.
“It was really fun,” Strezo said. “It was like, the two years before we really didn’t get anywhere, and this year we just did really good.”
There was a common theme in National’s ranks following Saturday’s loss to Maidu, despite its heartbreaking finish — no regrets.
“I just realize how far we got,” Formosa said. “And not many teams got as far as we got.”