PEARL — If you pitch a state championship game for a baseball-mad, tradition-rich program such as Sumrall, there’s inherent pressure. Nerves can beat you before your opponent does.
For Sumrall Bobcat senior right-hander Andrew Knight, that was the situation Thursday afternoon at Trustmark Park. But that wasn’t even the half of it.
Knight had a lot more on his broad shoulders than just state championship pressure. You see, Knight is member of the Pine Belt Knight family. There was a time when you would just say the Knight family of Hattiesburg, but the Knight’s have branched out.
Larry Knight, Andrew’s father, coached Hattiesburg High to four state baseball championships, then moved on to Sumrall where his teams won five more state crowns. His high school teams over 27 seasons won more than a 1,000 games and lost about 200. His 2009 Sumrall team finished undefeated and won the USA Today national high school championship. Before coaching, he pitched at both Hattiesburg and William Carey and then in the minor leagues.
Larry’s older brother, Steve, is a Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame basketball coach, still winning big at William Carey. Before coaching, Steve played baseball and basketball for both Hattiesburg and Southern Miss and then played minor league baseball.
What’s more, Andrew Knight’s oldest brother, Austin Knight, was the catcher on four state championship teams at Sumrall, then played for Mike Bianco at Ole Miss and now coaches at East Carolina. Another older brother, Alex, also played on a state championship team at Sumrall and now helps coach the Bobcats for second-year head coach Andy Davis, who was an assistant under Larry Knight.
You talk about pressure. You talk about needing some backbone, some nerve. That’s a lot of championships to live up to.
Said Andrew Knight, “I didn’t want to be the only Knight who hadn’t won a state championship.”
And now he isn’t. Andrew Knight, who has signed to play baseball for national junior college powerhouse Pearl River, pitched the Bobcats to an 11-4 Class 4A State Championship victory over Pontotoc. The score might not sound like it, but there were some anxious moments.
Pontotoc, which has plenty of baseball tradition as well, came off the bus swinging and recorded six hits in the first two innings. The Warriors took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and then a 4-2 lead in the second inning.
Knight, who came into the game with an 8-1 record and with a sub-1 earned run average gave up as many runs in two innings as he sometimes gives up in a month.
“I think there might be some nerves involved,” said his Uncle Steve, watching from just behind home plate. If there were, you couldn’t tell it from his demeanor. Andrew Knight never changed expression whether he was chalking up a strikeout or giving up a two-run double.
Looks, in this case, were deceiving. “Yes sir, I was a little nervous, a little tight,” Andrew Knight said. “I didn’t have command of my breaking pitch and when I came in with fast balls, they hit it.”
Andrew Knight has seen a lot of baseball in his 18 years. When Sumrall was winning championships year after year, he often served as bat boy. “I was at every practice, every game,” he said.
He learned a lot of baseball through osmosis. One lesson: Don’t give in. Even when things aren’t going well, don’t give in.
And he didn’t. Over the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, he gave up just two hits, zero runs. He curve ball began breaking sharply. His fast ball, topping out at 87 mph, began hitting the corners. He struck out five of the last nine batters he faced, seven overall.
“My teammates and the crowd motivated me,” Andrew Knight said. “After I gave up the two runs in both the first and second innings, our guys answered both times. That was inspiration for me. I loosened up, started pitching.”
Andrew Knight probably would have finished the game, but he reached the MHSAA 120-pitch limit as he finished the sixth inning. By then, the Sumrall lead was safe. Young Knight was mobbed by teammates before he could reach the dugout and was given a prolonged standing ovation by the Sumrall crowd that filled up the grandstand down the first base line. Brycen Smith, another senior, finished for him, striking out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth.
The Sumrall Bobcats, from the baseball-rich Pine Belt Region, are state champions again – and for the first time since 2015. Fittingly, another guy named Knight played a huge role.