East Catholic has had a successful boys basketball program for quite some time. In the last seven seasons, the Eagles have been a state title contender every single year.
The Eagles have won four Central Connecticut Conference championships and three state championships in the last seven seasons. And it’s been future Division I players passing the baton on to the next star.
From Mark Carbone to Mike McGuirl to Matt Veretto to Joey Reilly and Jaylin Hunter, all have been members of the GameTime CT All-State team. All have state titles to speak of.
This season you can add another name to the list. Matt Knowling. The 6-foor-5 forward ended his season with a league championship and has secured a Division I future playing at Yale University.
“It’s important to me to pass the baton to the next guy,” Knowling said. “From Mike (McGuirl) to Veretto down to Joey down to me, my job was to take that role and prepare the next guy for the same things.”
Said East Catholic coach Luke Reilly: “McGuirl, Hunter and Reilly were the leaders as Matt came up through the program. The next guy up takes that leadership role, fill those shoes. He embodies all of those guys who went before him and put his own twist on it.”
Knowling did just that, leading East Catholic to a 23-1 record and the CCC tournament championship – his third and the team’s fourth in the last five years.
“I couldn’t ask for much more, going 23-1 my senior year and being a senior captain. Coach Reilly did a good job getting us ready every day.”
And for the second straight season, an East Catholic player earned the GameTimeCT Player of the Year laurels. Jaylin Hunter earned it last year and played in 29 games at Old Dominion.
Knowling earned it this season by averaging 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game for the Eagles.
But it’s that 101-5 record, with the three league championships and the Division I state championship in 2019 that really defines Knowling.
“The 101 wins and 5 losses, those are the same numbers I would throw out with Joey,” Reilly said. “Matt is one of the greatest players and one of the greatest people ever to come through the East Catholic program. The good news for me is this is not the end. It’s the beginning of a wonderful career at Yale.”
Knowling went out on a good note: scoring 26 points to help East Catholic defeat Northwest Catholic for the CCC title. It could have gone so much worse.
Knowling went down with an injury in the third quarter. He was able to walk off under his own power. What he said at the time – and still today – is the injury was a hyperextended left knee. He re-entered the game after a brief stay on the bench.
Knowling proceeded to knock down a trio of 3-point shots to help the Eagles pull away from the Lions.
“I still felt it probably a week or two after,” Knowling said. “At the end of the day, the big goal was to win a championship and I wanted to do the most I could to help the team win.”
East Catholic was ranked No. 1 in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll and was the No. 2 seed in the Division I state tournament. But the Eagles never even suited up – the CIAC canceled the remainder of the state tournament and all of its other postseason championships on March 10 due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
“All of us felt we were blindsided at first,” Knowling said. “Now it makes more sense. The CIAC was the first to do it. It kind of hit us hard. But safety and health come first.”
Knowling verbally committed to play at Yale last September. He wanted to be worry-free about his future plans before the season began.
Head coach James Jones saw Knowling twice during East Catholic’s 2019 postseason run. He believed Knowling can fit into the three things the Ivy League program is built upon: defending, rebounding and sharing the basketball.
“(Associate head coach) Matt Kingsley really was aggressive how he spoke about Matt and that peaked my interest,” Jones said. “He’s a really good passer, sees the floor really well and makes his teammates better.”
Jones and Reilly are longtime friends. Reilly said he attended Jones’ introductory press conference at Yale 21 seasons ago.
Knowling is the first player under Reilly to play for Jones.
“Matt is going to play for a guy who stands for the right things,” Reilly said. Matt is a natural fit, he is super humble and he has really strived for excellence in all areas of his life since I met him.”
Knowling said he is around 190 pounds. He knows he needs to put on weight to “be able to bang with the big guys down low” in the Ivy. He said he is currently working out on his own with body pushups, core work, jump rope, and “shots outside when I can.”
How does Jones see Knowling fitting in nxt season? “I think very highly of him. My expectation is he will fight for the opportunity to play and I look forward to that.”
Knowling said he will likely major in psychology. Hopefully, that will be in the classroom. In the current age of distance learning and social distancing from his teammates, Knowling still has made time since the season ended to prep the future seniors.
“As a senior leader, you have to worry about everyone under you,” Knowling said. “I’ve started to talk about it with Luke Strole about it. The program is in good hands definitely.”
Said Reilly: “He is one of us, that’s the way it is. He will never be replaced, but the ripple effect of what he done for us will always be in our program.”