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Saturday, April 21 High School Sports

BASEBALL: Wreckers’ Knight enjoys the spotlight

WESTPORT — Chad Knight was in his element — cool, calm and collected on the big stage.

Craig Knight, however, was a bundle of nerves.

“Whenever my son’s on the mound, I’m in knots,” Craig said Wednesday. “But I don’t think any parent who has a son as a pitcher feels differently. Parents have a way of taking this so seriously that it can transfer to our children.

“I typically walk when Chad pitches. I don’t sit and watch it. I watch it from a distance, different angles. I stay out of sight.”

Craig watched from afar as his son put on a show with both his bat and right arm in last year’s Class LL championship at Palmer Field in Middletown. Chad socked a two-run home run and twirled a complete-game five-hitter to help Staples topple four-time defending champion Amity 5-1 for the program’s first state title in 16 years.

“I was ten times more nervous than him,” Craig said. “I don’t know where my son gets all this from, but he seems to have ice water in his veins. He does the job.”

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Chad Knight Scouting Report

“He’s like an old-school baseball player. He’s a vicious competitor. He obviously has a ton of talent. He’s got strength — arm strength and bat speed. He knows how to play the game. He’s had a lot of success, and he thrives on big situations. He’s the one you want at the plate or finishing the game on the mound. ... As time goes on, I think he will become just a position player. I think he has the ability to pitch and compete at that level [Duke], but it’s going to be in short stints. It’s just another level to pitch at. Offensively, he’s got above average power for his positions. I think he’s going to be a corner guy, either a corner outfielder or a first baseman.” — Trevor Brown, New England director of scouting for Prep Baseball Report and former Staples assistant coach

Maybe it’s because Chad, a self-described “baseball junkie,” is no stranger to the spotlight. He became an overnight sensation at the 2013 Little League World Series, during which he batted .409 with three home runs and 11 RBIs and pitched to a 3.07 ERA. Westport made it all the way to the U.S. championship game — the first team from Connecticut to do so since Trumbull won it all in 1989.

“He jokes a lot,” Craig said, “that he peaked when he was 12.”

“It’s kind of shocking that it was five years ago and I’m now a junior in high school,” Chad added. “It feels like it was just yesterday. I feel like it’s definitely sunk in.”

Plenty has transpired since that unforgettable summer. Knight, who at the age of 12 was on ESPN and had the chance to rub elbows with former MLB stars Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra, is now a seasoned veteran by high school standards. He’s already committed to his dream school, Duke, and has established himself as the Wreckers’ ace.

Last season, Knight went 3-1 with a 1.47 ERA and 44 strikeouts over 33 innings. At the plate, he hit .449 with nine home runs and 35 RBIs. He was chosen to the CHSCA All-State Class LL and All-FCIAC teams.

“He’s an attacking pitcher,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said of Knight, who plays the infield when he’s not pitching. “He’s got great command of his fastball. He comes right at the hitters. There’s not a lot of deception. He beat Amity by just spotting his fastball in and out and coming right at them.

“He’s very aggressive in the batter’s box, too. He’s in that batter’s box to do some damage. He’s not up there looking for a walk.”

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The Wreckers, who begin this season ranked No. 1 in the GameTimeCT/Register poll, are counting on Knight more than ever after graduating Ben Casparius. The two-way star and 2017 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year is now at North Carolina, leaving Knight, now 17, as the most accomplished player on the roster.

Fortunately, the Wreckers have no doubt that Knight can lead them.

“Chad’s always reliable,” said senior center fielder Chris Drbal, who was a teammate of Knight’s on the LLWS team. “You can always rely on him. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. It hasn’t changed through my whole career.”

Remember Knight, seemingly unfazed by a national audience, mowing down hitters in Williamsport, Pa., with a steely eyed glare? It’s that no-nonsense, bulldog approach that has McFarland buzzing about the year ahead.

“He’s got intangibles,” McFarland said. “He’s not just a showcase kid. He knows how to compete in the seventh inning against one of the top teams in the state and get those last three outs. You can’t teach that. You can’t teach a kid to be a finisher.

“Anybody can go to a showcase and throw for two innings and light up a radar gun.”

Added Knight: “I feel like I can be the most competitive person on the field.”

Knight (6-0, 210 pounds) has a fastball that’s been clocked as high as 92 mph to go along with a slider and changeup. McFarland said he’s mulling using him as his closer to start the season. And, of course, Knight will bat near the top of the lineup.

“Whatever he’s doing, he wants to win,” said McFarland, whose team opened its season Saturday at home against Xavier. “He does not want to look unprepared. He’s a problem-solver. He figures things out.”

The way in which Knight carries himself not only on the field but also off it has earned him many admirers, including Bobby Valentine, the athletic director at Sacred Heart University. Knight was part of a team that the former Rangers, Mets and Red Sox manager took to Japan in the summer of 2014 for a charity tournament benefiting tsunami relief efforts.

“Chad Knight’s one of the special kids out there today,” Valentine said. “Not only is he endowed with outstanding athletic ability and baseball IQ, he’s also — and it’s a credit to his family and his community — an outstanding young man who knows the difference between right and wrong at a very young age.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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