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Petaluma Valley blazed the trail to the regionals in 1995

Published: Friday, August 3, 2012 at 1:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 3, 2012 at 1:44 p.m.

Editor’s Note: The only Petaluma team prior to this year’s Petaluma National team to reach the Regional Tournament in San Bernardino was the Petaluma Valley team in 1995. Following is a story written a few years ago based on an interview with Steve Fillinger, the manager of that team.

In 1995, the Petaluma Valley’s 11-12-year-old All-Star team came within one game of Williamsport and the Little League World Series. Actually the team was even closer than that. The Valley Stars lost in the finals of the Western Regional Tourn-ament in San Bernardino, 4-2, on a home run in the eighth inning.

The team’s every move, from the Division Tournament through the Western Regional experience was eagerly followed by Petalumans on the radio and through extensive press coverage from the Argus-Courier and the Press Democrat.

On their return, they were treated to a heroes’ reception that included a parade through town in an antique fire engine, requests for autographs and a bundle of personal appearances. They signed hundreds of baseballs and their autographs became prized possessions.

They were honored by the City of Petaluma, the County of Sonoma and even the California State Legislature. Their manager, Steve Fillinger, and coach Rick Duarte were sought-after speakers at service and social clubs throughout the community.

The team’s amazing run started in the District 35 South Area Tournament played at Lucchesi Park. Petaluma won the championship, but it wasn’t easy getting started, as the Petalumans defeated Valley of the Moon, 4-2, in a tough game and then had to do it all over again when Valley of the Moon came back through the losers’ bracket and the Petalumans defeated them for the second time in three days, 4-0.

“Valley of the Moon was one of the toughest teams we faced with excellent pitching,” Fillinger recalled in a scrapbook entry detailing the team story.

That win advanced the Valley to the District 35 Tournament where they had to come back from a 9-8 loss to Mark West to defeat the same team, 15-4, in a second championship game for the district pennant.

“The Mark West loss woke us up and made us realize we could be beat,” Fillinger recalled.

When Valley came back to win the tournament, it fulfilled Fillinger’s initial goal. “When we first started I just wanted to win district,” Fillinger said. “Petaluma Valley had only done it once before.”

Fillinger”s son Chad, who went on to play professionally in the Seattle Mariners’ organization, had played on the first Petaluma Valley team to win the district championship in 1993, and his father had an opportunity to understand how important that pennant could be to the young players.

He had little way of knowing, as his team posed with the banner, that the journey was just beginning.

For Fillinger that journey was taken one step at a time.

“Both Rick and I wanted to keep from not looking too far ahead,” the manager said. “I had already accomplished my goal of winning district, now we just wanted to see how far we could go.”

Petaluma Valley rolled undefeated through the Section Tournament in Concord, polishing off Alameda in the finals. It was the first section championship ever for a Petaluma Valley team.

It also moved the Petalumans into the Division Tournament played on a brand new field in Benicia. Heavy favorite to win the tournament was a Campbell team from a league that had a Little League World Series appearance in its history.

Petaluma Valley was both good and lucky in the Division Tournament.

“We heard that Campbell had already made reservations for San Bernardino (site of the Western Regionals),” Fillinger said.

Petaluma never had to play the talent-loaded Campbell crew. A very good Palo Alto team knocked Campbell into the losers’ bracket and later eliminated it.

Petaluma, meanwhile, started the tournament in spectacular fashion with Greg Bridges throwing a no-hitter to beat Red Bluff. The winning run scored on an error in the eighth inning. By the luck of the draw, that moved Petaluma directly into the quarterfinals where it beat Palo Alto and then came right back in the tournament finals to beat the same team for the division championship.

“Winning the Division Tournament made me realize we had something special,” Fillinger said.

Members of that special team were in for a treat of a lifetime. Just getting to San Bernardino for the Western Regionals was an experience.

“Before we even left, we had to sit on the plane on the airport tarmac for two hours. Some of the kids had never flown before and before we left someone gave them a packet of candy,” said Fillinger.

The manager said that, despite the nervousness and the candy, the team was well behaved, although patience was stretched when they had to ride two hours in a bus without air conditioning to reach the Little League complex.

At the complex the teams stayed in baracks-like dormitories and ate at the complex cafeteria. The kids played ping-pong, swam in the Olympic-sized pool and generally had a ball.

For security purposes, parents are not allowed in the dormitories. For 10 days it was just the kids, the manager and the coach.

The young players were made to feel like superstars.

“We were treated like royalty,” Fillinger said. “We played before 5,000 to 10,000 people.

They even had their own Western Region daily newspaper with write-ups and box scores from the games.”

Parents supported the team, and after every game, the adults would gather around a motel swimming pool and enjoy the shared experience.

Unknown to the players and coaches, the team was creating a huge stir back in Petaluma. The games were broadcast on KTOB and people all over town stopped business, turned off televisions and gathered in homes to listen to the broadcasts.

The Petalumans took their fans on a roller coaster ride.

They battled back through the losers’ bracket before losing in the final game before Williamsport to Yorba Linda, 4-2 in eight thrill-packed innings.Fillinger said what made the team successful was the same thing that made the whole experience so enjoyable both on and off the field — they were friends and played as a team.

“There have been a lot more talented ball players who have gone through the Petaluma Valley Little League, but these kids played as a team.” he explained.

“Each one knew his role. We didn’t have anyone who complained about wanting to play more. They all got along real well.

“They almost had a sixth sense about what to do. They knew that someone was going to step up and get it done. It was just something about them that clicked.

“There was no pressure. They had fun playing baseball and doing things together.”

The manager said the experience extended to the families. “They (the parents) sacrificed a lot of time and money, but not one of them complained. They really enjoyed it and they were really relaxed — except when the team was playing.”

Fillinger has coached baseball and basketball for more than 20 years, at all levels from Minor Little League to high school junior varsity and has a son who played professional baseball, but he says he has never equaled what happened with the 1995 Little League team.

“I have never had such a pleasurable experience as I had with the young men and their parents,” he said.

Duarte, who also has more than 20 years of coaching baseball, said the 1995 team raised the bar for all Petaluma Little league teams.

“It gave everyone a taste and now they think that maybe, just maybe, they can do the same thing.”

Duarte loves Little League and annually visits San Bernardino for the Western Regionals

“I meet a lot of friends there,” he said. “For me to show up with a team was indescribable, and to be one win away from Williamsport was like a dream.”

Both Fillinger and Duarte acknowledged that luck played a big part in the season, but both also said the team’s character had a lot to do with what happened.

“They just played ball every day. They picked one another up every day. We had some good pitchers, we caught the ball and we always seemed to come up with a big hit.”

Duarte said the team also had another important quality.

“They had a love of the game. I think it is the only team that wanted to win more than I did.”

Although many of the players are still active in the game, none have enjoyed the collegiate and professional success of some of the other players who came up through the Petaluma Valley Little League system.

Fillinger says the catcher, Andrew Morris, played baseball in France, Spaletta became a bull rider, Chris Gordon was an outstanding golfer, Matt Parnow coached varsity baseball at Casa Grande and many of the team members still live in the area.

He still sees some of the players around town and the conversation always drifts back to the memories.

The team: Manager Steve Fillinger, coach Rick Duarte, Steve Berg, Greg Bridges, John Busick, Matt Doyle, Dan Hubacker, Andrew Morris, Matt Parnow, Robert Poole, Mark Rappa, John Reynolds, John Roberts, Matt Seibel, Bill Spaletta, Chris Gordon.

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