By Trey Williams
Walters State baseball coach Dave Shelton wasn’t sure what he had in Landon Knack this winter, but what he’s had has been a sure thing.
Knack, a red-shirt sophomore, pitched sparingly prior to this season. He was signed as a position player after labrum surgery somewhat limited his innings on the mound as a senior at Science Hill, and shortly after he added pitching to his duties as a sophomore at Walters State in 2017, he sustained a shoulder injury.
So when his third season in Morristown began this year, Shelton was relatively confident Knack could be a solid No. 4 starter. But not only did Knack pitch his way into the rotation, he’s on pace for a record-setting season while helping the top-ranked Senators (56-6) reach the Junior College World Series, which begins Saturday in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Knack got the victory in the win that clinched the Series berth and, oh, by the way, improved him to 13-0 on the season.
“If someone had told me at the beginning of the year I’d be 13-0 on the mound and got the win to clinch our World Series berth I would’ve thought you were crazy,” Knack said. “I always thought I would get to pitch a lot and do well, but not even starting the season in the weekend starting rotation, it’s been crazy to me to see where I am now.”
Knack is a win away from matching Adam Howard’s program record of 14-0 in 2004.
“Landon did something this year I don’t know if I’ll ever see again,” said Shelton, who played at Unicoi County (class of ’94) and Milligan College. “He struck out 50 batters before he walked his first hitter. I think he was 37 or 38 innings pitched before he walked a batter. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t have anybody else that could go down in the bullpen and put that pitching dummy in there – I don’t have anybody else that could strike it out 50 times without walking it. That was something that was incredible – what kind of command he showed.”
Knack was quick to commend Shelton and his coaching staff, which includes pitching coach Sean Robinson, Dan Skirka and A.J. Kruzel, the latter of whom is the son of former Johnson City Cardinals manager Joe Kruzel. Science Hill coach Ryan Edwards certainly also had a hand in Knack’s development.
“I have to give a lot of credit for where I’ve gotten this season, of course, to my coaches at Walters State,” Knack said, “but especially to my high school pitching coach, coach Edwards. He really did a great job helping me learn command on the mound and the importance of hitting spots and getting ahead in counts.”
Knack’s sister Morgan, who played on three state tournament teams at Science Hill, married first-round Pittsburgh Pirates draft pick Will Craig this past winter. Craig, who helped Science Hill to its last state tournament berth as a freshman in 2010, was an ACC player of the year and freshman of the year at Wake Forest.
“Any time during the season that I need a little bit of extra mentoring or anything he’s the guy I call,” Knack said. “It’s been nice to have him in the family.”
Knack will add some hardware to the family.
“Knack most likely will be conference pitcher of the year and he’s got a chance at national pitcher of the year because he’s been so good,” Shelton said. “On the mound he’s been unbelievable. … I tell people all the time it’s like a college version of Greg Maddux, painting both sides of the plate and working his breaking ball in keeping ‘em off balance. He’s got a really good changeup. It’s hard to square him up.”
Knack signed with East Tennessee State. Options had begun to accumulate. Shelton said he was contacted by Florida, North Carolina, Clemson and South Carolina, but Knack is excited about moving back to Johnson City from Morristown.
And he should have a chance to be a two-way player at ETSU. He bats for the Senators unless he’s on the mound. He hit .344 and led the team in home runs per at-bat during the regular season (10 in 93 at-bats).
“I’ve always loved ETSU,” he said. “I used to go to the camps every single year when I was little. I’m kind of a homebody. I love Johnson City. I love that area. So getting that offer and getting to go finish up where all my friends and family are – it’s awesome. I can’t wait for it.”
He can’t wait to get to Grand Junction, Colorado, either. Science Hill alum Ken Campbell coached the Senators to four World Series in 10 years while Shelton was an assistant, and the Senators won the title in 2006. Campbell, Shelton and numerous Senators players have stressed how the town embraces the World Series and large crowds and extracurricular events help charge an electric atmosphere.
Walters State won 49 games in the regular season when it went 61-8 en route to the 2006 national championship. They broke that regular-season record with 50 wins this year. The Senators didn’t lose a game in the conference or regional tournaments.
“I had never got to be a part of a dogpile, and that was a lot of fun to get to be a part of one,” Knack said. “I have not ever got to experience anything like getting to this point. Going to a tournament to try to win a national championship is a dream, and I can’t wait to get there.”