WATERBURY – When Chad Knight contemplates his future, it’s easy to focus on next fall: The Staples High School pitcher will be attending – and playing baseball – at Duke. When Knight looks back the other way, well, that’s an easy one, too. It’s the season-ending loss to Cheshire in last year’s state tournament.
One bright. The other not so much.
But now, after tonight’s Class LL semifinals, the past — and most certainly the present — feels as bright as his future.
Knight pitched and hit his team into the championship game in a 3-0 victory over Cheshire at Municipal Stadium. Yes, it was the same Cheshire team that knocked the Wreckers out one year ago. Knight certainly didn’t want to replace his worst scholastic baseball memory with a duplicate copy.
“We waited all year long for this,” Knight said after perhaps the best game of his career. “Losing to them last year was incredibly hard. So coming back and getting the chance to pitch and beat that team meant the world to me.”
Three days after pitching the final two innings of Staples’ quarterfinal victory over Trumbull, Knight (8-0) allowed no runs on three hits. He struck out 10 and walked one. And it came against the No. 1 team in the state and Rams ace Mike Kozlowski (9-1).
Oh yeah, and Knight added a long home run that provided the Wreckers’ final run in the sixth inning.
“It was the best player in the state against the best team in the state,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said, referring to Knight and the Rams (25-2), who had won 25 in a row after losing their opener. “And the best player in the state played like the best player in the state.”
Staples will face Southington, which edged Amity, 3-2, in Saturday’s final at noon at Palmer Field in Middletown. The Wreckers (24-3) will be gunning for their second state title in three years. For the record, Staples eliminated Cheshire in the first round two years ago, when Knight was a sophomore, en route to the championship. But it was the more recent loss to Cheshire that gnawed at his gut.
“Last year they really took it to me,” Knight said. “They had 10 hits off me. So this, getting revenge, is something you dream about.”
It was a bitter loss for Cheshire, which had visions of a repeat dancing in its collective head.
“I told the boys don’t hang your heads, who else has won 25 straight?” Cheshire coach Mike Lussier said. “But Chad pitched a hell of a game. He’s a great pitcher.”
As well as Knight pitched, it wasn’t an easy night for his coach, who had to monitor his pitch count (75) throughout the contest.
“I was worried about that 40-pitch inning but it never happened,” McFarland said.
The coach came out to talk to his ace in the bottom of the sixth after Knight allowed two hits and Cheshire had runners on second and third with one out. Russ Krauss was warming in the bullpen.
“I had to leave him in there,” McFarland said. “He was ready to finish it. Even if I had wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to take the ball out of his hand.”
“I always intend to finish every game,” Knight added. “If he had said ‘You’re coming out,’ I don’t think I would have let him have the ball.”
After the first three innings were played in 36 minutes, the Wreckers finally broke up the scoreless duel in the top of the fourth. Like Knight, Kozlowski retired nine of the first 10 men he faced, but Staples’ Drew Rogers led off the fourth with a single to left.
Then, after Rogers stole second base, Zach Zobel came through with a line-drive double down the rightfield line to score Rogers. Harry Azadian then laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, leaving Zobel on third with one out.
Kozlowski got what appeared to be a big second out by striking out Adam Petro, but then uncorked a wild pitch in the dirt that allowed Zobel to score the second run. The way Knight was pitching it felt like a huge run.
“Rogers causes all kinds of problems all the time for opponents, and Zach had a really big swing,” McFarland said.
“I get more confident when my teammates give me support,” Knight added.
If the second run had the Wreckers feeling a little more comfortable, then the long home run Knight hit to lead off the sixth may have really loosened them up. Rogers followed with a single and that ended Kozlowski’s night. The three runs allowed in 5-plus innings was impressive nonetheless for Kozlowski, considering the junior righthander was pitching on two days’ rest after throwing five no-hit innings on Saturday.
He, like Knight, wasn’t supposed to finish Tuesday. But Knight did.
“I’m not used to (pitching on two days’ rest) but this is baseball and you never get used to anything,” Knight said. “It’s five games in the state tournament and you do whatever you have to do.”
NOTES: The win over Trumbull in the quarterfinals gave Staples a school-record 23 wins this season. Cheshire had won 25 in a row since losing its season-opener to Amity on April 1. Staples losses this season were to Xavier, Westhill and a shocking 14-0 loss to Fairfield Ludlowe on May 8, the Wreckers’ last defeat. They came back and beat Ludlowe in the FCIAC final. … Staples reached the semifinals after beating Norwalk, Wilbur Cross and Trumbull while Cheshire advanced with wins over Farmington, Shelton and Enfield. … Aside from the Class LL crown they won two years ago, the Wreckers were champs in 2001 and runner-up in 2015.