For a lot of folks who call one of the warm-weather southern states home, it may be difficult to accept the fact that one of the country’s baseball hotbeds is an unassuming university city in the Pacific Northwest.
Corvallis, Oregon is a quintessential college town that sits about 60 miles inland from the Pacific Coast and is the home of the Beavers from Oregon State University. OSU long ago established itself as one of the top programs not only in the Pac-12 Conference but nationwide, having claimed NCAA D-I College World Series championships in 2007, 2008 and 2018. It’s a place and program that demands respect.
Yet there’s something more to the Corvallis baseball scene that likely sits outside the periphery of the national lens, or at least until recently. While the Oregon State Beavers make a habit of doing at a lot winning during the NCAA D-I spring season so also do the Corvallis Knights, a summer collegiate organization that has held sway over the West Coast League (WCL) for more than a decade.
In late August, the Knights whipped the Yakima Valley Pippins 13-2, to capture their fifth straight WCL championship. It was also their seventh title since 2011 and eighth since 2008, which was head coach Brooke Knight’s first year at the helm.
This year’s Knights team finished 50-14 after the championship series win, which capped one of the most successful seasons in the team’s history. And today, the Corvallis Knights are being recognized as the 2021 Perfect Game National Summer Collegiate Team of the Year.
No one can ever look into a crystal ball and predict a season like this one would ultimately unfold, but Coach Knight had a gut feeling about this group right as the season was getting underway in June.
“The one thing I knew that we had early on was some athleticism,” Knight told PG during a casual telephone conversation this week. “Really across the board, position player-wise, we had some really, really good athletes and some guys with some versatility that could play a few different spots. We had some pitching depth [but] I wasn’t quite sure how good that front-line pitching would be.”
That depth proved to be just what was needed for the Knights to grind their way through a 64-game season that played out in a little over two months.
Five Knights were named to West Coast League all-league teams at season’s end, including first team selections in second baseman Travis Bazzana (Oregon State), outfielder Nick Vogt (UC Santa Barbara) and right-hander Ty Uber (Stanford).
Bazzana, a left-handed hitter who hails from Sydney, Australia, was named the WCL Most Valuable Player and its 2021 Top Prospect. Bazzana led the league in hits with 81 (18 2Bs, 5 3Bs, 1 HR) and set a league record with his .429 batting average. His doubles and triples totals were team-highs, as were his RBI (27) and runs scored (46) totals.
“He really had a heck of a summer,” Knight said. “He was barreling everything and he’s a high energy, kind of electric player; he’s going to have a great career at Oregon State.”
Vogt hit .351 with 47 total hits (5 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 2 HRs), 24 RBI, 25 runs and 23 stolen bases. Uber appeared in 11 games (8 starts) and went 4-0 with a 2.80 ERA while striking out 55 batters in 45 innings of work.
Corvallis left-hander Ethan Ross (San Jose State) and right-handed closer Nathaniel Mendoza (CS San Bernardino) were second team all-WCL picks. First baseman Kiko Romero (Central Arizona Coll., Arizona) and catcher Tanner Smith (Oregon State) were honorable mention selections.
In the aforementioned WCL championship game on August 20, Bazzana, Vogt, Romero and Briley Knight (Portland) went a combined 11-for-17 and drove in all 13 runs. Ross threw six innings to pick up the win, allowing one run on four hits with seven strikeouts and two walks.
On the mound, the Knights also got valuable innings throughout the season from right-handed starters Brock Townsend (Oregon State) and Grant Taylor (Washington State). A bullpen that featured Jake Vargas (Cal State Fullerton), Sean Wiese (George Fox U.) and Colton Meyer (Linfield College) and anchored by Mendoza and Braden Boisvert (Oregon State) was also effective.
“With five all-leaguers out of 33 I thought that said something for our team,” Knight said. “Normally you might actually have a couple more on a championship-type team. We were pretty balanced across the board where numbers-wise – other than Bazzana and a couple of arms – we just didn’t have huge eye-popping numbers. It was really just a collective team effort.”
Brooke Knight was named the WCL Coach of the Year for the seventh time in his 13-year tenure and when speaking about the Knights from an organizational perspective, he is effusive in his praise of CEO Dan Segel, who Knight calls a “visionary.”
It’s telling, Knight said, that employees are given a 55-page handbook that details how the company would operate should anything happen to Segel: “He’s that kind of guy that sets the table and the expectations at the top,” Knight said.
He also had words of praise for Corvallis Knights President/General Manager Bre Miller who has been on board for 15 years and tends to run the day-to-day operations. And don’t get him started on his coaching staff, which this year included five-year assistant Youngjin Yoon and Ed Knaggs among others.
Yoon is a player- and fan-favorite who Knight called the Knights’ “secret weapon”: “Yoonie is our motivator; he’s a great inspiration,” the head coach said. “He’s been with us for [five] years now and, sure, we won before that but he just helped accelerate that chemistry piece and cultural piece...
“What we have is that collective trust amongst the leadership group, whether it’s the front office or the coaching staff,” Knight continued. “Yes, we have a great facility which is nice to show up at every day, but you’ve still got to play baseball and you’ve still got to create that energy within a team.”
There are challenges involved in turning a collection of players who are coming in from a wide variety of college programs into cohesive unit that can learn how to win together over the course of a two-month season. Turnover is an annual expectation and every team tends to be very different, especially from a personality perspective.
The Knights generally try to bring back a handful of players from the previous year’s team, something that was difficult to do this year since there wasn’t a season in 2020.
“Winning is hard,” Knight said. “We’ve had some success...but this is really hard to do and it takes a lot of focused effort. So when we’re trying to get those guys to quote-unquote ‘buy-in’...for me it’s really getting to know the players to the point that they know, hey, you are cared about. Really try to gain that mutual respect from the players to myself, the players to our coaching staff.”
The Corvallis Knights came into being as a 501c3 nonprofit organization in 1990 and the original benefactors were Phil and Penny Knight, the founders of Nike. There were some extended family ties between Corvallis Knights CEO Dan Segel and the Nike Knights, so that was the way the team got its nickname. It’s really just coincidence that the team is coached by Brooke Knight, who is not related to Phil and Penny.
In their early years, the Knights played home games at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., before relocating to Oregon State and Goss Stadium in 2007. With no offense intended toward Mt. Hood CC, having access to all the facilities available at a Pac-12 Conference university with a baseball program that has won three College World Series championships was a huge step up.
“The community has really, really embraced it and that’s where Bre Miller, our president, does a tremendous job,” Knight said. “I was born and raised in Corvallis and played football and baseball at Oregon State and I’m really familiar with the community, too...so we all are kind of connected. We do have a great partnership with Oregon State and they love it, too.”
Everyone associated with the Corvallis Knights takes great pride in all that has been accomplished, to this point anyway. Some college coaches tend to look at summer collegiate leagues as nothing more than a developmental piece of the overall college baseball puzzle, but that’s not how Knight views it.
Development and winning don’t have to be mutually exclusive, Knight believes, and he maintains that it’s easier for a prospect to learn more and make positive strides in his development if he is also doing a lot of winning in the process. And that’s what the 2021 Knights were able to experience and what future Knights players can expect to experience in the years ahead.
“Overall, we’re going to continue to just really look to enrich the lives of young student athletes through a competitive baseball atmosphere that allows them to understand what it’s like to be on a team and be held accountable,” Knight said. “Along the way, hopefully they’re getting better and when we send them back in the fall they’re a better player and definitely a better leader for their program.”