After the CCRI baseball team lost its first game in the Eastern District tournament this past weekend, head coach Ken Hopkins told his players to shut everything out and start envisioning where they wanted to be.
“I told them, ‘Close your eyes and picture yourself getting on a plane to Oklahoma,’” Hopkins said.
Oklahoma is the home of the NJCAA Division II World Series, and the Knights won’t have to imagine it much longer.
They’ll be there.
CCRI bounced back from its game-one loss with two victories over Mercyhurst North East on Sunday. In the second one, the Knights rallied from a 4-0 deficit with eight runs and won 8-5 to clinch the school’s first trip to the World Series since 1996.
“It’s a magic carpet ride,” Hopkins said. “That’s the only way I can describe it.”
The Knights went 29-10 in the regular season, swept the region championship over powerhouse UConn-Avery Point and cracked the top 10 of national rankings on their way into the district tournament, which they were set to host at Fell Field in Warwick.
But they still had a tough task ahead of them, and it got tougher when they lost their first game of the double-elimination tournament 11-3 to Westchester Community College on Saturday.
It was the realization of the only worry Hopkins had coming into the tournament.
“Our only concern was youth,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got 16 freshmen and you don’t know how they’ll handle the pressure. It showed a little bit in the first game.”
That’s when Hopkins told his team to start dreaming.
Soon enough, it became a reality.
The Knights finished off a 7-6 victory over Mercyhurst on Sunday morning in a game that was continued from the night before, when darkness forced a suspension. Brendan Cabral pitched 7.2 strong innings before getting into trouble in the eighth, when Mercyhurst made it 7-6. But in the ninth, Warwick’s Kevin Dale came out of the bullpen and shut the door to preserve the one-run victory and keep CCRI’s hopes alive.
With each team now having one loss, Mercyhurst played Westchester and posted an 8-2 victory, setting up a winner-take-all rematch with CCRI for the championship.
Again, the path wasn’t easy for the Knights. They allowed four unearned runs in the first three innings and found themselves trailing 4-0.
Slowly but surely, though, the Knights turned everything around. Dale came out of the bullpen again to relieve starter Ben Libuda and was lights out, allowing just three hits and one run in 5.1 innings.
“We’ve used him in every key situation this year,” Hopkins said. “He could very easily be one of our starters, but we love him out of the bullpen because he just knows how to win and how to finish a game.”
Dale’s performance set the stage for the Knights to make a comeback.
It ended up stealing the show.
CCRI chipped away at the lead and trailed 4-2 in the sixth, when Jamale Horn smashed a home run to make it 4-3, giving the Knights a jolt of momentum.
Still trailing by a run in the eighth, the Knights were looking for a spark and contemplated pinch-hitting for ninth-place hitter Mo Checo.
“We had three good options to bring off the bench, but my coaches got together and we said, ‘He’s a sophomore, let’s let him hit and see what happens,’” Hopkins said.
It was the right call. Checo led off the inning with the first home run of his career. The game was tied, and the Knights were feeling the momentum.
“The intensity in the dugout when he hit that home run, I knew at that point that we weren’t going to lose,” Hopkins said.
After Checo’s home run, Dylan Gracia worked a walk and Marc Dorsi followed with a double to put runners at second and third. Tom Gavitt then grounded out, which brought up Horn. Mercyhurst elected to walk him and load the bases for Mike Sherburne.
It was a bad idea.
Sherburne, CCRI’s hottest hitter who had already hit a two-run triple, turned on a pitch and crushed a grand slam over the fence in left field, giving the Knights an 8-4 lead and touching off a wild celebration.
“I sat in the corner of the dugout and just watched the kids,” Hopkins said. “They were going crazy, jumping on each other. It was quite a moment. I think they knew they had it.”
Dale allowed a run in the bottom of the ninth, but nothing else. After the final out, the celebration was on.
“It’s great for the kids and it’s great for the school,” Hopkins said. “To follow up what the basketball team did is just really special.”
It was also special for Hopkins, who’s been at the helm since 2001 and is CCRI’s all-time winningest coach. None of his teams had ever been to a World Series.
Sunday was especially emotional for Hopkins because his father, Jim, passed away last July.
“I’m convinced he had something to do with it,” Hopkins said. “He was looking down on us.”
The Knights will now have a few days to bask in the glow of the championship before getting back to work. The World Series runs from May 26 through June 2 in Enid, Okla.
“The kids are flying high,” Hopkins said. “They’re pinching themselves right now. We’ll take a couple of days off then get back to practice and start making plans.”
CCRI’s first game at the World Series will be Saturday, May 26 at 1 p.m. against the champion from the North Central District.