It is a word no program likes to have as a tagline, but even the members of the Staples baseball team have conceded, prior to two weeks ago, the previous 14 months had been one of underachievement.
Last year there were injuries, this spring a slow start. The Wreckers opened a year ago as a state favorite and failed to qualify for their conference tournament. Two seasons, one postseason victory.
“Sitting on the fact that we didn’t even make the FCIAC playoffs last year and got knocked out in the second round of states after Staples had one of the best years in history the year before, that was tough to sit on and wait for the spring to come around and show people what we were capable of,” said Chad Knight. “This season we really got after it in March and were just motivated so we were ready to go when the season started. Hopefully we can cap it off.
In a sense, the Wreckers have come full circle. That best year Knight referred to ended with a loss in the Class LL final to Amity. Knight was in the 8th grade. Tomorrow, Knight will take the mound at high noon, trying to lead the Wreckers to just their second state title, and first in 16 years. The opponent will again be the Spartans, riding a 24-game state playoff winning streak — an accomplishment too remarkable to overstate since baseball is not a single-elimination sport — and in search of their fifth straight title.
“I feel a there is a lot more pressure on them, they are working on the streak and they may be expected to win,” said Jack McFarland. “We think if we continue to play loose and the team keeps hitting the way we’re hitting, we have a good shot.”
In a sense, the Wreckers are playing with house money. A defeat would result in the consolation of a redeeming state tournament. There will be no finger-pointing.
But the Staples players are not comforting themselves with such sentiment, instead upping the intensity internally to come away with an elusive championship trophy for this current group of seven seniors.
The Wreckers, now 17-8, have reached this point with some counterintuitive coaching strategy, two outstanding pitching performances by Ben Casparius against the teams that met for the FCIAC championship, and finally seeing all the talent come together in lockstep.
“We’re playing our best brand of baseball right now,” Casparius said. “Things can’t get much better from a pitching and hitting standpoint. Taking down the two FCIAC finalists is huge for our team. We knew it was going to be tough on the way there, we’re just happy to be playing for the state championship.”
McFarland said the reboot started Memorial Day weekend.
“We worked hard those days, even practicing in the rain that Monday,” McFarland said.
McFarland felt to get to the quarterfinals, the first necessary hurdle, it was best to save Casparius for a possible second-round meeting with FCIAC champion Wilton. It was fraught with risk in a survive-and-advance setting, but having a pitcher with Knight’s ability made it a more reasonable play.
“I think our big decision at the beginning of the tournament was to keep Ben out and save him for round two,” McFarland said. “It’s always dangerous because if you get knocked out in round one against a real good Cheshire team, people around town are going to say we never got our No. 1 on the mound. We thought to beat a very good Wilton team we had to throw Ben there.”
Knight game through with a shutout, and then Casparius followed with arguably the best performance of his career, a three-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts against the Warriors.
“I just wanted to make sure my team stayed in the game the whole time,” Casparius said. “Give them a chance to win.”
McFarland might have used the same rotation this week if Knight had not been called on for more extensive duty in what was a wild 12-11 quarterfinal win over Westhill.
Next up for Staples and Casparius was league runner-up Ridgefield, which used its two aces, Alex Price and Collin Lowe. The Tigers got to Casparius for two first-inning runs before he settled down and fanned 14 in a 7-3 win.
Now Knight gets the ball tomorrow against Amity. Pitching in the Little League World Series has seasoned the preternaturally poised sophomore for the spotlight.
“Pitching in a big game before is definitely helpful for the experience, but what is really going to help is my teammates,” Knight said. “We’ve had each others’ backs all year. With the state championship, no matter what the stakes are, I don’t think that’s going to change a bit. This is something I’ve always looked forward and dreamed of since I saw Staples play Amity in the state championship two years ago. We were very motivated to get back here and excited to play for that state title.”
The epitaph of the Wreckers’ season remains unwritten. Redemption is not part of the narrative.
“Obviously it is going to be very important to us after losing to them in the state final two years ago, so we’re going to come out with a lot of fire and give it everything we’ve got,” Casparius said.
McFarland is currently sitting at 199 wins. What a way to possibly reach a milestone. But like his players, McFarland is thinking team first.
“We’re excited. It’s a great opportunity to go up there,” McFarland said. “It’s one game, you have to swing the bats, that’s going to be the key for us, we have to score some runs. We think we have the hitters to do some damage and we’re excited about it.”