Jeff Jacobs: From the bench to championship hero, Kodonas lifts Norwalk to first baseball title

Photo of Jeff Jacobs
Norwalk’s Konstantinos Kodonas hits a single allowing teammate Noah Maldonado to score the winning run against Westhill in their Class LL state championship game Saturday at Palmer Field in Middletown.

Norwalk’s Konstantinos Kodonas hits a single allowing teammate Noah Maldonado to score the winning run against Westhill in their Class LL state championship game Saturday at Palmer Field in Middletown.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

MIDDLETOWN — If you’ve played sports anywhere, you’ve probably been there. If you are the parents of an athlete, you’ve probably seen your son or daughter hurting.

You’ve started much of the season and then you aren’t. Happens in football. Happens in basketball. Happens in baseball and softball.

“It sucks,” Norwalk junior Konstantinos Kodonas said. “I started at first base; after the FCIACs, I wasn’t hitting the ball and I ended up sitting the bench.”

How will you handle that adversity? What kind of attitude will you carry with you into the dugout? How will a coach help you? How can a dad help? What will you do with the first state baseball championship in your school history dangling on second base in the form of Jaden Echevarria?

Konstantinos Kodonas had his answer Saturday afternoon in the seventh inning with one out in a scoreless Class LL title game. It was a dramatic and historic reply.

He drilled a full-count pitch into a full-throated roar from the Norwalk fans gathered on the first-base side of Palmer Field.

“Everyone calls me Kostaki, that’s my nickname,” Kodanos said after he came off the bench to drive in the only run of Norwalk’s ridiculously tense 1-0 victory over Westhill. “My teammates and coaches call me Kos.”

We’ll go with pinch-hitting hero.

Which led to another thought from first-year coach Ryan Mitchell: “To plate the game-winning run in the state semifinals and state finals. I don’t know, man, I don’t know if it’s ever happened before.”

It’s happened now.

Neither of these teams entered the final regular-season GameTimeCT poll in the Top 10. Both lost in the FCIAC quarterfinals. They split in the regular season. Norwalk had lost four or five before it hit its stride. Both teams jelled in impressive fashion in the final days of spring, first forcing an all-FCIAC state semifinal at Cubeta Stadium in Stamford and then producing the first all-FICIAC title game in two decades.

Westhill sophomore Kyle Kipp had been brilliant through six innings, allowing only three singles and striking out eight. As his pitch count climbed toward 101 in the seventh, Kipp lost a little control, appeared to tire a bit.

Echevarria hit a one-out single and stole second. It was the first time Norwalk had a runner in scoring position. Mitchell turned to Kos to pinch-hit.

“He kind of went cold in the middle of the year, we went in a different direction,” Mitchell said. “I just told him, ‘Stay with me. Stay with me. Stay with me.’ He did.

“The reason it was an easy call was because he did the same thing against Greenwich (three nights) ago,” Mitchell said. “I just said to him, ‘Get a good pitch. Don’t let the moment get too big for you.’”

He didn’t. A few nerves, Kos said, but he trusted his mechanics. In the fourth inning of a 5-5 game Wednesday, he lifted a little liner over the third baseman’s head for an RBI single and Norwalk went on to win 7-5.

“I know I can hit,” Kos said. “And that hit against Greenwich helped me a lot. When Jaden got a hit, I knew my time was coming up. I knew I could do it. I just went up there and did it.

“I knew (Kipp) threw a pretty good fastball and we weren’t hitting it a lot. I know his slider was on and off all day. If I saw curveball, especially early in the count, I probably wasn’t going to go after it. I was going to be aggressive with fastballs.”

Kos swung and missed a first-pitch fastball.

The way Kos grinded that at-bat, Mitchell said, is the microcosm of the team’s last two weeks in this tournament. He worked the count full.

“I knew I was getting a fastball,” Kos said.

He drilled it to center. Echevarria beat the throw home.

“One thing I’m big with is vibrations,” Kos said. “I’m just trying to keep good vibrations in the dugout and everywhere. That keeps me up. Keeps me into the game.”

Besides sounding like one of the Beach Boys, what does good vibrations mean?

“Good feeling, good vibes,” Kos said. “Cheering on your team. Attention to the game. Calling out how many outs. Everything.”

His attitude wasn’t lost on his teammates. They were thrilled for him.

“He’s always staying positive, getting the team excited in the dugout,” said Brendan Edvardsen, who threw five scoreless innings before Javier Gonzalez got the final six outs. “He’s clutch and he came up at the perfect time.”

“Every day (Mitchell) was telling me, ‘Be ready. Be ready,’” Kos said. “The last few nights, my dad was telling me, ‘Be ready. Be ready.’”

“I was ready,” Kos said. “It was a fast game. Forty-seven minutes into the game, we’re into the fifth. OK, this is going by fast. And then it just slowed down. I was ready. I delivered.”

The CIAC has held a baseball tournament since 1938. That’s 82 years. Norwalk is a great baseball town, but Norwalk High had never won one. Mitchell played sports at Norwalk. He has been an assistant for its baseball and football teams. No wonder he was overcome with emotion. His family was here. Legendary Norwalk coach Pete Tucci — Mitchell’s coach — was here.

“It’s extremely emotional,” he said. “To do it at a place that has been home since I was kid, it means the world to me. To have Coach Tucci here, to get his endorsement early on and be able to call him in the middle of the night … calling him a mentor is a gross understatement.”

Kos’ dad, Ioannis, never played baseball. He played soccer, football and basketball. He was a senior at Norwalk High the last time the Bears lost in the state finals to East Hartford. They also lost in 1993 to Cheshire.

“This is historic,” Ioannis said. “Ryan did a phenomenal job coaching. He had last year taken away by the pandemic. They worked early and did a great job getting them ready. The kids had fun all year.

“It was hard for (Kos), but I’ve been telling him, ‘You’ve got to keep your head up. Be ready. Your number is going to get called and you never know what’s going to happen. It could be a big spot.’ He’s a confident kid, humble, doesn’t get too flustered.”

Kos said both his dad’s and mom’s parents are from Greece. His grandparents left just last week to go to Greece. Ioannis is an accountant. His mom’s side owns the Dairy King restaurant in Norwalk. The family got Konstantinos into baseball when he was 4. Now 12, 13 years later, here was Kos walking up to get his championship medal and the Norwalk fans were chanting “MVP! MVP! MVP!”

“That felt great. That felt fantastic,” Kos said.

“Incredible,” Ioannis said, “but I think I aged 10 years the last few days.”

“If I don’t grow gray hair after this one,” Mitchell said. “I may never get any. I couldn’t be any happier for that kid.”

A kid who could have been easily forgotten this spring won’t be forgotten for a long, long time around Norwalk.

“Yeah, I always think anything is possible,” Kos said. “Anything.”

Good Vibrations.

jeff.jacobs; @jeffjacobs123