Smithtown Christian didn't build its championship baseball season on high highs. It didn't build it on the 13-game win streak, really, or even the unwavering belief that they, the Knights, were unbeatable.
The genesis of the first state title in school history came in April, at the end of a brutal sweep in the midst of a brutal arctic spring. The goal at the beginning of the year was to go undefeated, senior Tim Gorton said, and though it was a Class D school, Smithtown Christian had been steadily improving and steadily defeating larger-school competition for about two years.
The team was confident. Its first league match was against reigning Class C champ Pierson, and the team seemed like an equal opponent. Until . . . Loss, 3-2; Loss, 8-6; Loss, 8-2.
"We were down," Gorton said. "And it separated the team" that, at that point, "[wasn't] really a team. We had a lot of strong players, but we weren't a team."
Added Kyle Straker: "After losing our first three games to Pierson, we realized how divided the team really was."
And so Straker, Gorton (the coach's son) and Jake DiNozzi (the pitcher who had lost his spot at the top of the rotation to Jack Palma, a St. Mary's transfer) embarked on their mission to strengthen the troops. Coach Craig Gorton, meanwhile, sat them all down, and asked them, "What are you playing for?"
The answers weren't "a state title" or "school history" or anything like that. "Some said God," he said. "Some said teammates, some said the school. I think it made them all look in the mirror a little bit, and say, 'Why am I here?' "
What occurred after that changed the course of the season, Straker said. The senior captains mobilized and made camaraderie a priority, and "our team unity was by far the strongest it had ever been," he said. The Knights won their next game 14-0, and didn't drop a game after that, beating their opponents by an average of 6 1/2 runs.
In the state final, they faced Hancock -- the team that beat them in the state semifinal last year -- and immediately went down a run, with two other runners in scoring position. With two outs, the next batter hit a quick-dropping laser to center that seemed destined to quash Smithtown Christian's hopes.
But whereas it took a team effort to bounce back from Pierson, in that moment, it took one player -- Anthony Graziano -- to turn things around. The centerfielder took off and leaped forward, making a fully-extended grab to end the inning.
The Knights took the lead on Gorton's RBI hit. DiNozzi pitched a complete game. He was, Craig Gorton said, the player "who never complained" about losing his ace status to Palma, who also was masterful during the postseason run.
"This showed not only who we are as a team, but also the strength and perseverance each one of us has as an individual," Graziano said. "Something I will remember for a lifetime."
It was also a product of years of development. Gorton, the coach for seven years, said he'll step down next year to fulfill a lifelong dream of watching his son play college ball, at Eastern University, with assistant Chris White taking over. He still plans to be involved. "Yes, yes," he was going to step down, even if they hadn't won a championship, Gorton said. "It was extremely special. I was a coach at Commack for a long time and I wasn't sure I'd ever get to coach a team to a state championship. But I knew, that Saturday. They weren't going to be denied. We could see it in their eyes."
The result this time?
A championship title, 7-3.