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JJ SAYS: Before fame there was Little League for Spencer Torkelson

It is safe to say that Casa Grande High School graduate Spencer Torkelson is right now the most famous athlete in Petaluma, and perhaps soon will become one of the most famous ever to come out of our city. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future he will join a very select few to play professional sports at their highest level.

He will not be the first from Petaluma nor the first from Casa Grande High to play in the Major Leagues. Most recently, Casa’s Jonny Gomes not only reached the pinnacle, but stayed, with at bats for eight Major League teams over the course of 12 years that included brief sips of coffee in 2003 and 2004 before he settled in with Tampa Bay in 2005.

Of course, there have been others who have made the summit, if only briefly.

But the purpose of this missive is not to look to what might be ahead for Torkelson, but what was behind him, including one of the most classic Little League confrontations in Petaluma and District 35 history.

The year was 2012, and Petaluma had two of the best Little League All-Star teams ever, one from the city’s oldest leagues, the Petaluma National, and one from its newest, the Petaluma Valley. Both were loaded with talented players who would go on to big things in high school. Some are still starring on college teams.

Both National and Valley teams were capable of making a deep run in All-Star play, but only one could make it out of the District 35 Tournament, the first stop on a long road that could possibly take a team all the way to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the Little League World Series. But first they had to get out of Petaluma.

The Nationals featured a lineup of hitters and two dominating pitchers - the skillful and super competitive Danny Marzo and 6-foot-plus Bradley Smith. The Valley had two dominating players in Torkelson and Eddie Bermudez. Behind the stars for both teams was an array of talent that has seldom been on a Little League diamond.

Petaluma National gained the upper hand in the tournament when it beat the Valley in the second round. The Nationals coasted into the championship game, while the Valley battled back through the losers’ bracket for five straight wins to set up a much anticipated rematch.

I’ve seen so many great Little League games that it is hard to separate them, but even my aging mind remembers that game, with just a little help from the archives. Key participants have since become well known to fans who follow local baseball. At the time, they were 12-year-old kids just on the cusp of name recognition.

The showdown game, with the Valley facing elimination and the Nationals needing a win for advancement, was played on a Sunday afternoon on the Nationals’ still new diamond at Carter Field on the Petaluma Junior High School campus. It was one of the most anticipated games of the season, with Marzo and Torkelson squaring off in a match of pitching aces.

Neither faltered, although neither was totally dominant. Eventually, the strict Little League pitch count got to them both.

Marzo gave up a home run to the Valley’s Colton Rea, allowing two runs on three hits before leaving just one out from completing four innings.

Torkelson was touched for home runs by National stars Marzo and Smith, but pitched strongly through five innings.

After the stars left the bump, things really went wild. I remember sitting in the shade of a storage container trying to see around equally comfort-seeking spectators as the Valley rallied for four runs in the last of the fifth inning and needed just three outs to force another game.

Hance Smith, who was to do similar magic things on a much bigger stage in Williamsport later in the summer, kept the Nationals alive with a three-run homer in the top of the sixth inning.

Now it was the Nationals that needed only three outs.

They never came.

Trevor Naugle, who would find success swinging a different kind of stick as a lacrosse star, was hit by a pitch to force in the tying run in the last of the sixth inning, and Bermudez singled up the middle for the winning run and an 8-7 Valley victory.

The loss would be the first and only in tournament play for the Nationals until they were beaten twice by Goodlettsville, Tennessee, in the Little League World Series.

The next day’s winner-take-all championship game was anticlimactic.

With its pitching depleted by the long battle through the losers’ bracket, the Valley was no match for the Nationals’ Bradley Smith, who struck out six in four innings. The Petaluma National Little League won, 13-1, and was on its way to Williamsport and history.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)

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