By Rocco Geppi
The format and tone of the articles we normally post about our athletic teams on this website just did not seem to do justice to what we have witnessed from the Knights baseball team this season.
So, I've decided to buck the trend of a typical season recap.
This year's baseball team was resilient, cohesive, and fearless.
After winning its first three games, they would lose eight in a row and would not get back to .500 until April 4, which was followed by a three game skid and losing six of 10.
But sometime around mid-April, things began to click for this team. It did not necessarily show in the win/lose column, as the team was 9-10 for the month; however, the Knights seemed to take on a new identity and decided, well, they didn't care who they played, how many NCAA Division I or major league prospects they had, they would not go down without a fight, and more importantly, they would do it together.
They won three of their last four regular season games and entered the NJCAA Region XX Division II Tournament as the No. 2 seed. After a first round bye, the Knights found a way to win back-to-back one-run games (6-5 over CCBC Catonsville and 4-3 over Garrett) and play Frederick in the championship.
On paper, it looked like a David vs. Goliath matchup.
The Cougars had swept the Knights in the regular season, winning 7-3 and 8-0, and had only one Region XX Division II loss all year. Additionally, six of Frederick's hitters' sported batting averages better than .300 and six starters combined for 37 homers in less than 50 games.
Unlike tic-tac-toe, baseball is not played on paper and the Knights could not have cared less about the Cougars offensive numbers.
On May 13, CCBC Essex scored a season-high 16 runs in route to its second regional title in three years, defeating the Cougars 16-7.
Mitch Fyffe, James Husar, Franco Velasquez and Roland Heredia-Bustos were named to the NJCAA Region XX All-Tournament Team.
Fyffe went 7-for-14 with three RBIs in the tournament. Husar only appeared in the championship game and had the best game of his two-year career at CCBC Essex, going 3-for-5 with two doubles and five RBIs.
Velasquez started the championship game and while he gave up seven earned, he also struck out eight over six and two-thirds innings.
Heredia-Bustos, who you'll read more about later in this article, won two games in relief in the regional tournament. In seven innings, all relief, he gave up just three hits, did not allow an earned run, struck out five and walked three.
The Knights batted .341 against the Cougars (15-for-44). Chase Ritter went 3-for-5 with five RBIs and Luke Schaffer and Jeff Acevedo both went 2-for-4 with three runs scored.
On to Districts
In 2016, head coach Mike Carter and the Knights won the team's first region title in 24 years. They would go on to be swept by Mercer County Community College in the NJCAA Northeast District Series. Not just beat, but pummeled, by the Vikings 7-1 and 25-8, respectively.
But it was that series and a step back last season – 2017 saw the Knights go – that prepared Carter and his team for this year's rematch.
"Two years ago we knew we were facing a very talented team [in Mercer], a team with much more playoff experience than ourselves," Carter said. "Winning the region that year was a stepping stone for us. We weren't that deep on the bench and we knew that was a disadvantage to us going to districts. We knew we needed to get deeper on the mound to have a chance at winning the region and district.
"The experience was also key for our young coaching staff. Our consistency in reaching the final four in the region the past five years led to our improved confidence and the belief that we could beat a team like Mercer and get to the World Series."
The series began in a very ominous way.
Mercer, representing Region XIX, was in rotation to host the 2018 district series; however, heavy rains forced the Vikings to find another location and Harford Community College Athletics accommodated their request.
And so it was that on Saturday, May 19, Mercer "hosted" CCBC Essex at the Harford Sports Complex in Bel Air, Md.
Not only were the Knights looking for revenge for what happened two years prior, but they were facing the reigning NJCAA Division II national runner up.
The first five innings seemed as if each team was testing the other. The Knights struck first with a run in the second and the Vikings tied it in the bottom of the fifth.
In the top of the sixth, Schaffer began with a leadoff single. Fyffe came up next and homered to right-centerfield. Robert Leon would later score from second on a wild pitch and error on the catcher to make it 4-1 Knights.
CCBC Essex held the lead until the bottom of the ninth.
The Viking's plated one, then catcher Ciaran Devenney made up for his error with a two-run homer to tie it.
It would stay that way until the 13th inning.
Ritter led the inning off with a single and after a Leon sacrifice would score on a Mercer error.
Heredia-Bustos, who was now in his fifth inning of relief, gutted through the home half of the inning.
The Vikings began with a single, a fly out, and another single. Heredia-Bustos walked Devenney to load the bases with one out.
He promptly struck out the next two hitters to secure the 5-4 victory.
The series moved back to Mercer the following day.
Mercer took an early 1-0 lead after the first half inning, however, CCBC Essex answered with three in the bottom of the first. The Vikings tied it in the second and the Knights again answered with three in the bottom of the third.
The Knights would increase their advantage and led 9-5 heading into the seventh.
Mercer continued to battle back and tied it with four in the top of the seventh. Essex picked up a run in the bottom of the inning to regain the lead.
It remained 10-9 Knights going into the ninth when Vikings' Domonic Boselli smacked a solo homer to tie the game. It was the first earned run given up by Heredia-Bustos since May 1.
Showing composure and poise, the 6-foot-2 Norcross, Ga. native got the next hitter to fly out and struck out the following batter to end the inning.
Will Van Horn led the Knights' half of the ninth off with a walk and Sandy Paulino came on to pinch run. Acevedo beat out a bunt to put runners on first and second, and Husar's sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third.
Max Tracey came to the plate and lifted a fly ball to left field. Paulino tagged from third and seconds later scored to give the Knights the 11-10 win and spot in the NJCAA College World Series for the first time since 1992.
Think about that for a moment; let it really sink into your hippocampus. It has been 26 years since the Knights have gone to the national championship tournament.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards had just opened its gates; George H. W. Bush was president; gas was selling for $1.05 a gallon; John Gotti was sentenced to life in prison; Miley Cyrus was born…ok, too much.
The point is, it had been two and a half generations and this team, a team that was 3-8 to start the season, finished the regular season 24-24 overall, and had just two players hitting over .300 had found a way to come together, get hot at the right time, and earn a trip to Enid, Okla.
"It's an incredible feeling to do anything that hasn't been done in a long time," Carter said. "It gives you a great sense of accomplishment. When [Sandy] Paulino crossed the plate I was mostly excited for our guys, because they worked so hard through many obstacles throughout the year. We thought we had a talented enough team this year to accomplish a lot of the goals we set for ourselves this year with the main one being a berth in the World Series.
Nelson Laviosa was 4-for-9 with an RBI and a run scored in two games versus the Vikings.
Welcome to Enid, Oklahoma
The NJCAA began to divide baseball into divisions in 1993, so the last time the Knights went to, and won, the World Series all teams in the country played as one division.
Enid, Oklahoma has been the NJCAA Division II College Baseball World Series host since 2008. It is located in Garfield County, about 100 miles from Oklahoma City and is the ninth largest city in Oklahoma (approximately 50,000 residents).
CCBC Essex arrived in Enid the evening of Thursday, May 24 and the next day took part in the opening ceremonies.
One event that was especially exciting was the annual home run derby competition.
Each of the 10 teams select a hitter and they are paired with two little leaguers from their host team.
Schaffer was selected by the Knights and he was paired with Keegan Brown and Kelson Hamilton of the 10U Chisholm Longhorns.
The trio won the derby and the hearts of many in attendance.
"It was something I've never had a chance to do," Schaffer said. "I've competed in home run challenges [at John Carroll] when I was in high school for fundraisers, but didn't fair too well. I was excited to be in Oklahoma to compete against nine of the best home run hitters in the country.
"Working with Keegan and Kelson was fun. If not for [Keegan] who went 5-for-5 we would not have won it. It was everything I imagined it would be and more exciting when we found out we won."
Winning was a feeling the Knights were getting used to having. They came into the World Series 5-0 in the postseason and had won nine of their last 10 games overall.
On May 26, the Knights, as the No. 10, took on the No. 7 Scottsdale Community College Artichokes in game one of the tournament.
The Artichokes held a 2-1 lead after two and then the Knights' bats woke up in the bottom of the third.
Tracey set the table with a leadoff four-pitch walk. Julio Creazzola reached on an error when the Artichokes' pitcher sent his bunt attempt sailing.
Laviosa wasted little time and ripped a two-run triple into the left field corner to give the Knights a 3-2 lead.
Schaffer followed with an RBI single to increase the lead to two and later scored when Van Horn drew a bases loaded walk to cap the scoring that inning with a 5-2 lead intact.
The Knights added two more in the fourth.
Nolan Watson led off with a single and Tracey reached on what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt, but hustled to beat the throw.
Creazzola grounded out to second, which moved up both runners. Watson scored on a wild pitch and Laviosa plated Tracey with his third RBI of the game to give the Knights a 7-2 lead.
The fifth and sixth innings went scoreless, before Scottsdale pulled to within one in the seventh.
Caleb Smith started the game and went six and one third innings, allowing five earned runs on seven hits and five walks. Heredia-Bustos again worked well in relief, giving up one earned over two and two thirds on three hits.
The Knights 3-4-5 hitters (Laviosa, Schaffer, Fyffe) combined to go 6-for-11 with four RBIs and three runs scored.
Laviosa was 2-for-4 with three RBI and a run scored, while Schaffer was 2-for-3 with an RBI, run scored and a walk. Fyffe was 2-for-4 with a run scored.
With the win, CCBC Essex would face the No. 2 seeded (No. 5 NJCAA Division II) Parkland Cobras the next day.
The game began slowly, with not too many runs early on what was a windy day in Enid.
Parkland struck first with a run in the bottom of the second and the Knights tied it with a run in the top of the third. The Cobras answered in the bottom of the third and another in the bottom of the fifth to take a 3-1 lead.
It stayed that way until the ninth, which was both exciting and heartbreaking.
Husar drew a walk in between a foul out by Van Horn and strikeout by Watson.
Tracey reached on a two out walk and Husar scored on Creazzola's RBI single to put the Knights down one. A four-pitch, unintentional, intentional walk to Laviosa and the bases were loaded for Schaffer.
Sacrificing for the team, Schaffer took a pitch off his head – don't worry, he would be okay – to force in the tying run.
Creazzola would score on an error and Ritter walked to bring in another run to give the Knights a 5-3 lead.
Ritter was brought in from shortstop to pitch the ninth. After a walk, an error and a single, the Cobras had the bases loaded with no outs.
Velasquez came in to relieve Ritter and got the first hitter he faced to pop out. The next batter grounded to short, scoring a run to make it a one-run Knights lead.
Connor Aube was up for the Cobras and sent a shallow fly to right center. Creazzola drifted out and Laviosa raced in; however, the latter was unable to make the catch and the Knights fell 6-5.
The baseball "Gods" giveth and they taketh away.
During this postseason, the Knights have been the benefactors of such occurrences; Laviosa will make that catch 99 times out of 100, it just happened to be that one time.
Scottsdale would get a bit of revenge the next day, besting the Knights 13-8 and eliminating them from the tournament.
Schaffer was 3-for-5 with two RBIs in the Knights' final game. He ended the tournament 6-for-12 with four RBIs, a double and a run scored.
Laviosa was also 6-for-12 in Enid, drove in five RBIs, scored three runs, had two triples, and a stolen base.
Prior to the Mercer series, he was 4-for-32 with 12 strikeouts over his last 10 games.
"I just told myself I was a little cold and not in a slump," Laviosa said. "I wanted to work hard for my team. I stayed calm at the plate and trusted my swing."
Heredia-Bustos threw six innings in Enid, giving up just one earned run on five hits, striking out four and walking one. In 20 and a third postseason innings, he gave up just two earned runs.
Our Knights may not have won the World Series this year in Enid, Okla., however, they did gain a lot of fans, respect, and have experiences that hundreds of teams may never have.
Knights' faithful, Knight Nation as we've affectionately begun to call them, tuned in any way possible. Whether it was the live stream by NJCAATV, radio broadcast of KCRC and Chris Morales, or waiting patiently for our live tweets to reach their computers or mobile devices, the news was traveling far and wide.
In April, the CCBC Essex Athletics Twitter account (@CCBCEssexSports) totaled 76,900+ impressions. In May, we did 281,100+ impressions, with nearly 100,000 coming over the last week.
With 21 players from eight states – Maryland, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, and New Mexico – and the Dominican Republic, it's challenging to not only get them on the same page, but to also gel, come together as a group, and play well enough to reach a tournament where only 10 out of 133 NJCAA Division II teams earn bids.
It takes wins in the postseason, it takes a bit of luck, but most of all it takes hard work, character and want-to from top to bottom.
There's no telling how many times or when the Knights will return the Enid in the years to come. What I will tell you, is it will not be another 26 years and this 2018 team will be the marker by which all future teams are measured.