CARY, N.C. – The kids from Huntington Beach, Calif., captured the hearts of the nation when they won the Little League World Series in 2011. When Nick Pratto singled in the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning to lead the team from California to a Little League World Series championship against the team from Japan, fans around the country celebrated.
Five years later, Pratto and six of his Ocean View Little League teammates are still winning championships together.
On Saturday, they led Huntington Beach to the National High School Invitational championship with a 7-2 win against Southern California rival Chaminade Prep (Canoga Park, Calif.) at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
Huntington Beach junior Hagen Danner, who hit a home run in that Little League World Series title game, had three hits and two runs as the Oilers showed the talent and team chemistry that had them ranked fourth in USA TODAY High School Sports Preseason Super 25 poll.
Danner, one of the few juniors on the American Family Insurance Preseason ALL-USA Team, set the pace with a leadoff double in a four-run second inning as the Oilers turned an early 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 lead and never looked back. Shortstop Chad Minato, who is headed to Harvard, drove in two runs in the inning.
Although they now have an NHSI title to take back to California, Huntington Beach still expects to improve as the year goes on and could rejoin the Super 25 when the latest rankings are released Wednesday. The Oilers started 3-4 before winning four games in four days in Cary.
Sophomore lefthander Nate Madole went 6 1/3 innings Saturday, scattering seven hits with three walks and three strikeouts for the win. Kobie Anton gave in to finish a game for the third time in the tournament. He also got the cake in the face treatment during a postgame television interview.
Both teams will return home and compete in the annual Boras Classic, the top baseball tournament in Southern California. The event begins Tuesday.
Pratto, who starred with Danner last summer for USA Baseball’s 18U club and committed to USC as a freshman in 2014, will become eligible to play April 1 after transferring from Mater Dei following his sophomore year.
“From the outside, I could see that these guys were hard workers and the chemistry here was awesome,” Pratto said. “They’re all my buddies. I remember them from all the times we’ve had together. I think it was just time for me to come back and be together with them again, find that bond and play together. At some point in my life, I’ve played with every single one of these guys.”
His current and former teammates are glad to have him back on their team.
“It’s great having Nick back again,” said senior Anthony Martinez, who was also a teammate on that 2011 LLWS team. “I loved playing with him as a kid. He’s a really great ballplayer. I love seeing him on the mound and hitting. He’s a great addition to our team.”
“He’s best friends with everyone on this team already,” Danner added. “I think he’s going to be very helpful on the mound and hitting-wise, also,” he said, pointing out that Pratto will help fill the void left when senior pitcher/third baseman Logan Pouelsen, a UCLA signee, was lost for the season after Tommy John surgery earlier this month.
“I just want him out of the dugout,” joked Huntington Beach head coach Benji Medure, who had just been doused with a bucket of ice water by Pratto after winning the NHSI championship. “I’m sick of hearing him. He’s grumpy because he’s not playing. He has his hat off the whole time. He has terrible hair. I just want him on the field…
More seriously, he added: “He’s a great kid, and I’m so ready to have him on the mound and in the field and at the plate because he’s going to really help us.”
Pratto will add pitching and hitting strength to an experienced team with years of success playing together. Huntington Beach won the CIF Southern Section championship last year.
While celebrating on the field Saturday, junior Dylan Palmer – a member of each of those championship teams – said the NHSI title ranks at the top.
“This championship is the best,” he said. “Everything came together. We all played as a team. We’ve had injuries. We’ve had the toughest parts, and this is definitely one of the best moments.”
He’s also glad his Little League teammate transferred to Huntington Beach this year.
“We all love each other,” Palmer said. “I’ve been playing with these guys since I was 7 years old. We just play together as a team. Nick’s a big part of our team, and it’s great to have him back.”
“They took me right in,” Pratto said of his new Oilers teammates. “It’s like I was already here before. These guys are some of the best guys I’ve worked with. We came together really well, and it’s awesome – especially moments like this.”