By LORI CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SAN BERNARDINO — The Petaluma National Little League all stars don't want to get ahead of themselves. But it's hard not to.
The team is just two wins away from going to the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania, the once-in-a-lifetime experience youth baseball players fantasize about.
"Why not us?" Manager Eric Smith posed Thursday, the day before his No.1-seeded team takes on Nevada in one of two semifinal games in the West Regional tournament in San Bernardino.
"I keep thinking that," he said as the 13 Petaluma boys took indoor batting practice during an escape from the 110-degree Southern California heat. "Why not us? It could be us as much as it could be anyone else. I'd take this group of kids against anybody."
All six teams at this stage are talented. They all have depth, drawing from their leagues' best players. There's no cramming now.
Petaluma is the only team to complete round-robin play undefeated, finishing 4-0 and earning the top seed in today's semis.
Among his six primary pitchers, pitching coach Trevor Tomei has three strong lefties, which is unusual. On Tuesday, Petaluma's three southpaws struck out 11 Nevada hitters – the team they play tonight.
Does Petaluma have an advantage?
"Going 4-0 was more than we expected," Smith said. "We knew the kids could do it, but we didn't know we would.
"We're going into Friday in as good a position as we can be in."
Today's semifinal winner plays at 5 p.m. Saturday in the championship, with the victor headed to South Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series against seven other American and eight international teams. The event is Aug.16 through 26.
"It's a little scary. Everyone has it in the back of their head," shortstop Hance Smith said. "But we're not supposed to talk about it or think about it."
As ESPN and its professional announcers rolled into the ballpark, nestled at the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, the kids were trying to balance the pressure of a nationally televised game with simply playing the game they love and enjoying their rare opportunity.
They went to a water park on their day off Wednesday. They've been playing video games and trading league pins with newly made friends, bonding with the team from Oregon, with whom they are bunking in the Little League barracks.
"We can't be worried about being on TV; we just have to play our game and do our best," said third baseman Cole Tomei, who knocked in the game-winning run Monday night to beat Southern California 3-2 and earn Petaluma state bragging rights.
"That was my first walk-off hit ever," he said, smiling widely. "I was really excited we won."
Today will be Petaluma's second meeting with Nevada, which Petaluma beat 10-6 on Tuesday night.
Nevada's cleanup hitter, Ryan Merino, hit two three-run homers. He's leading the tournament in home runs (3), batting average (.667) and RBIs (9).
Pitcher Danny Marzo yielded one of those long balls.
"I know I can throw him the curve, just not up," he said Thursday. "We know them now. You just can't take anything for granted. One bad pitch could cost you the game."
Assistant coach Mike Slate, whose son Porter plays second base, calls himself the team therapist, trying to show the boys winning is important, but not everything.
"It's more of a life lesson," he said. "It's how you conduct yourself.
"Things are not always going to go your way, in baseball or in life. It's being a good team member, a good citizen. It goes so far beyond baseball."
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Regional Tournament
At San Bernardino
Today’s semifinal games
Hawaii vs. Arizona, 2p.m., ESPN2<QA0>
Petaluma vs. Nevada, 6 p.m., ESPN
5 p.m., ESPN
Notable: Saturday’s winner advances to the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. .<TH>.<TH>. Petaluma beat Nevada, 10-6, in the final game of round-robin competition on Tuesday .<TH>.<TH>. Petaluma also played Hawaii and Arizona last week, defeating Arizona 2-1 and Hawaii 11-9.
Live play-by-play audio feed at pca.tv