CASTRO VALLEY — Considering where San Mateo National was last year, or the year before that, the historic 2019 season must seem like a dream.
In 2017, at the 9-10s level, National didn’t survive the District 52 All-Star tournament, falling in the championship round to Hillsborough. Last year it was the same thing, only it was the 10-11s tournament, and it was San Mateo American that knocked off National in the District 52 championship game.
“I didn’t think that was fun and we deserved more,” National catcher Franklin Kuo said. “So, this year it meant a lot to us to get here and represent our league.”
The “here” to which Kuo is referring in the Northern California Little League Majors State All-Star Tournament, where National has earned a title shot, after already earning two championship banners this summer.
This year, the District 52 tournament is in the rearview mirror, with National flying the championship banner. Same with the Section 3 banner, the second title National took home this summer.
Now, advancing through the Nor Cal elimination bracket with four straight wins since falling to Maidu-Roseville in the tourney opener, National earned a rematch thanks to a 15-0 walloping of Sunnyvale Friday at Five Canyons Park.
Maidu, advancing through the winners’ bracket has a game to give, meaning they must be defeated twice by National. The championship round opens Saturday at Five Canyons Park at 10 a.m. If necessary, the two teams will play again Sunday at 2 p.m. with a trip to San Bernardino and the West Zone Regional on the line, one step away from the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
That was the pep talk from manager Dan Luzzi at the outset of the District 52 tournament — the road to Williamsport starts here.
“It sounds really good … but you’ve got to win four tournaments just to get there,” Luzzi said. “It’s a huge task.”
National is really hitting stride though. After hitting just one home run as a team through district and section play, and none in the first two games the Nor Cal tournament, the National offense has clubbed six homers in its last three games.
Half of those have been delivered by Noah Greenspan, who went deep twice Friday. A two-run shot in the first inning — a screaming liner that couldn’t have been much more than a 15 degree launch angle — scraped the fence in left-center for a two-run shot. His second homer was even more impressive, a no-doubt-about-it drive deep onto the knoll beyond the outfield fence in left-center.
“Yeah, it’s really fun hitting home runs,” Greenspan said.
But it isn’t as much fun crossing the plate, according to Greenspan. Despite towering over all his teammates, the gentle giant — who in his wake leaves the timeless question from Little League fans: Is that kid really 12? — is evidently afraid of one thing, that being his teammates greeting him at home plate.
“My head’s very soft,” Greenspan said. “So, I get scared when they hit my head. … That’s my only fear.”
Everyone got in on the act Friday, though, as National scored 15 runs in just two innings to invoke a 15-run, three-inning mercy rule. The Nats sent 11 batters to the plate in the first. Of the first nine batters, eight reached base. Three batters into the second inning, when Tommy Kane received a four-pitch walk, every spot in the order had reached base.
Taking nothing for granted, National throttled relentlessly, stealing bases on the catcher’s throw back to the mound consistently, including two swipes of home — once by Jordan Kiaaina in the first and another by Kuo in the second. Meanwhile, the wheels came off for Sunnyvale, who issued six walks and committed seven errors.
“You feel for them because they’re the same age as my kids,” Luzzi said. “That could have easily been in my dugout.”
Jacobs added a double, while Alejandro Formosa, Soren Blanchard, Sean Kelly and Riley Lim recorded singles.
Even with the pummeling of offense, National set the tone early in its signature style of strong pitching and smooth defense.
The first out of the game saw the shortstop Kelly exhibit textbook glove work, snagging a hard chopper into the hole with a high backhand and firing across the diamond to make a difficult play look routine.
Then starting pitcher Josh Jacobs tallied the first of his three strikeouts, but when the biting curveball skipped to the backstop, Kuo played the carom and coolly threw through the runner, lofting it just over his head for Greenspan at first to receive a perfect strike.
Then came the thunder, which in a tactical sense looms large for National going forward. Jacobs needed work just 2 2/3 innings to earn the win, keeping his pitch count under 35. That’s the magic number, making him available to pitch Sunday if necessary.
“I think Josh pitched great,” Kuo said. “Again, he hit all his spots and put them right where I wanted them.”
With two outs in the top of the third, Jacobs had a chance to earn a complete game, inducing a grounder to Greenspan at first. But Greenspan’s underhand toss to Jacobs covering the bag was off the mark, allowing Sunnyvale’s Jaden Duong to reach on the error.
The miscue forced National’s hand to turn to right-hander Kurt Schaffer in relief. Schaffer faced one batter, coaxing a grounder to the second baseman Formosa, who stepped on second to end it.
In advancing to the championship round, National becomes the first team in San Mateo history to play as deeply into the All-Star season. The last time National reached the Northern California tournament was its only appearance in 1974, going one and done.