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Silver Knights persevere during ‘Improbable Season’

Telegraph photo by TOM KING Nick Guarino was probably the best pitcher on the Silver Knights this season, going 5-0 while winning the game against Brockton to clinch a playoff spot and Game 2 of the FCBL Finals

NASHUA – Cam Cook and Kyle Jackson were sitting in Cook’s Holman Stadium office back in April.

The pandemic was raging. Things were being canceled right and left.

But there they were, Cook, the first-year Nashua Silver Knights general manager and Jackson, their first-year manager, going over the roster that the two had put together.

Then they got a little greedy. They started to play with lineups.

And then Cook looked out at a green, gorgeous Holman diamond.

“Imagine if we could play a game today?” he said to Jackson. Then he added, “I really, really hope we get to play.”

Otherwise, all that work would have been for naught. Well, not only did they play during this awful health crisis, they crossed the finish line to get the gold medal.

“The Improbable Season,” as owner John Creedon Jr. declared it to the fans prior to the start of the Futures Collegiate League Finals against Worcester, produced a not quite improbable, but perhaps mildly surprising, championship.

The work, which actually began last fall, bore the sweetest of fruit – the organization’s fifth title in the league’s 10 years.

“At the time, it was our first time doing it,” said a thrilled Cook, grinning from ear to ear about a half hour after Knights reliever Brandon Dufault struck out Worcester’s Tyler Patane – who represented the winning run with men on first and third – to end it.

“We were just trying to feed off one another, bounce ideas, what do we want the team to look like. Do we want power, do we want speed? I think we finally came to the conclusion, we’ve got 35 spots, might as well try to do it all.”

Remember, the product on the field for nine seasons was the work of former team vice president of player personnel B.J. Neverett, who for five seasons manged the group he put together. Neverett fittingly was at Holman last Saturday to witness the title as he certainly left the team in good hands.

Cook and Jackson divided the player pie. Jackson went after some of the larger school players, mainly Division I, while Cook took the smaller schools – Merrimack, his alma mater Nichols, Clark, etc.

“Mashed it together, whether it be 50-50 or 60-40, whatever it ended up being throughout the course of the season,” Cook said. “Kyle was an excellent coach. They were happy all season. Katie and I kept them happy. Ariel (pitching coach Ramos) kept the clubhouse in shape and everyone happy.”

Cook agreed that the whole process is an inexact science. “I’d be lying if I knew Nick Guarino (of Clark) would go 5-0 and have a sub-1.50 ERA,” said Cook, who was one of those gambles back in 2016 but became a key cog in not one but two titles. “I knew he was going to be good, I didn’t know he was going to be great.”

Cook had a handful of Nichols players on this team, but they all panned out – including slugger Kyle Bouchard, who signed late but just in the nick of time to become the Finals MVP.

Of course, there were players banging on the door months earlier, after the Cape Cod and New England Collegiate Baseball Leagues cancelled their seasons due to the pandemic. A couple, sure, found their way on to the Knights roster, but Jackson had to turn away plenty, out of loyalty to the group he and Cook finally had.

“Every week there’d be a new kid picked up, or a new kid that dropped off,” Jackson said. “It was a long off-season but we kept our team through everything. We didn’t drop anybody. We said this is what it is. When all the leagues cancelled, we decided we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to pick up these kids.

“I owe these kids for the summer for signing them. And you know what, D-III can compete with D-I and it doesn’t matter in my eyes.”

And Jackson has the experience to back it up.

“I’ve seen it all,” he said. “You have a Cam Cook that comes from Division III and leads the league in hitting (back in 2017). You’ve got Dom Keegan. It’s amazing the talent that’s on this team from Division III to Division I.”

But the season didn’t start out the way Jackson and Cook envisioned. The team’s bats were silent in an 0-3 start.

But then things changed, as Jackson kept telling them not to worry. Just come, play and enjoy playing the game that you were robbed of playing in the spring.

“I couldn’t envision this when we were 0-3, honestly,” Jackson said. “But I told the guys, ‘I don’t care if we lose all 39. I want you guys to come out and enjoy it, because your (college) teammates aren’t playing. So take full advantage of it. And when the bats come alive, the pitching will get there. Ariel did a great job with the pitchers, I had confidence in him working with everybody.”

Ramos was another Jackson move that worked.

“For my first year as a manger, under these circumstances, I didn’t think this would happen,” Jackson admitted. “But I’m so glad that it did. I wouldn’t trade these guys for the world.”

“I think it was after we lost the first three and then we came back and won, I don’t know how many it was, five or six, then I knew we had something special,” said Knights catcher-outfielder Dylan Jones, whose three run homer in the top of the first gave the team a burst toward winning that third and deciding game.

Jackson not only won a championship, but also the league’s Manager of the Year.

“I had my time, I learned a lot from B.J. (former manager Neverett), I learned a lot from Ted Curle. Just soaked it in because I came from high school, and didn’t have (college, as he went right to the Red Sox after being drafted).

“So I was learning eveything I could and added my twist to it.”

“It starts from the top,” Jones said. “Cam and Katie (assistant GM Arend) coming in and putting a good team together, a good coaching staff, and it shows on the field.”

The first week of the season, what was showing on the field was that the North Shore Navigators of Lynn, Mass. appeared to be the class of the league. They started the season 6-0, but then something happened. Nashua’s Nick Shumski singled in a run for a walk off win on a hot Saturday early July night at Holman Stadium, and the Knights handed the Navs their first loss.

That changed things. North Shore was never the same, and not in the playoff picture a month later. Nashua, on the other hand, took off. After the 0-3 start, the Knights didn’t lose more than two in a row until a four-game skid that put its playoff hopes in jeapordy just before the last week of the season. Thanks to the hitting of Jones, Jared Dupere, Dom Keegan, and John Mead, the Knights had a potent lineup with power – 40 home runs power.

“They had a tremendous offense,” Worcester manager Alex Dion said. “And they had enough pitching clearly to get through this series.

“We found different ways to win games the whole summer. You look at our stats, and from a team standpoint, our numbers were’t pretty, and we found a way to finish in first place.

“It’s a good league. The league was better this year than it’s ever been.”

•••

What do Cook & Co. do for an encore?

It’s going to be a little different if 2021 is a more normal, pandemic-free summer. Some of the players who gained an extra year of eligiblity due to their colleges cancelling seasons were able to play in the FCBL this summer. That might not be the case next summer, plus players may return to the Cape League and others.

“It it’s a more normal season, like 2019, our status I think as a league has grown exponentially this season,” Cook said. “Whether it’s NESN (which televised three games involving all six teams), the talent, us being the only game not just in town but in the region, I think we’re on a lot more people’s radars.

“Good relationships were built. We may get guys who are on the fringe, maybe fringe NECBL or Cape League whose coaches say ‘You know, I really like Kyle Jackson, I really like the Creedons, let’s put you somewhere where I know you’d be happy.”

Believe it or not, the roster building for an FCBL team begins down the stretch of the previous year.

“We’ve already got guys lined up for next season,” Cook said. “We’re going to keep building it up, have the same approach. K-Jack is going to be here, I’m going to be here. It sounds like the whole crew is going to be ready for Round 2. We’ve set the bar high.”

It seems this franchise has done that for the last 10 seasons.

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