Prior to the start of the spring semester, all of Nebraska’s more than 600 student-athletes gathered inside Memorial Stadium and listened to best-selling author and motivational speaker Jon Gordon talk about the value of athletics. A former Cornell lacrosse player, Gordon spoke of the thrill and excitement of intercollegiate athletics, but his focus was how athletics aide an individual’s personal and career development.
“The purpose of sports is to become a better human being,” Gordon told the Huskers. “Everything is either a challenge or an opportunity. It’s about perspective."
Gordon’s quote rings true for freshman MJ Knighten, who saw herself grow as a person during her recruitment when she turned challenges into opportunities.
“There were some challenging moments in my recruiting process,” Knighten said. “Some challenges were that I had to come out of my shell and stand out. The recruiting process also made me realize that I had to work harder than the other softball players to be noticed.”
The challenges Knighten faced during the recruitment process and throughout her softball career will only serve to benefit her as she aspires to become a sports broadcaster, a career where one must “stand out”. Through softball, Knighten is developing the characteristics and gaining the experience that will benefit her along her career path. But softball has also taught Knighten the value of hard work, as earning a Division I scholarship is no easy task.
Knighten began playing softball when she was five. Her father, Kenny, played baseball at USC and in the minor leagues within the San Francisco Giants organization. Kenny also served as a coach in the Corona Angels organization, where he coached his daughter. With the family connection to the sport, MJ always loved the game, but one moment in particular made it clear that her passion was great enough to put in the necessary work to become a scholarship student-athlete.
“When I was nine, I played on this team that was older than me,” she said. “We were in this tournament and it was a 0-0 ball game all the way until the seventh inning. The team that I was on was the home team, and we had a runner at second base to start the inning. I came up with two outs and a runner at second and hit a double to win the game.
“That moment has stuck with me all throughout my career.”
The thrill of that walk-off winner was like nothing she had ever experienced. It made her want more, and she quickly realized that softball was in her future.
“Softball became more than just a game to me the start of my freshman year,” she said. “The realization came to me when I started playing in showcases and when college coaches wanted me to call them and talk to them.”
Calling coaches is a nerve-wracking experience for most teenagers, and it was a challenging for Knighten, who admittedly had a hard time coming out of her shell. That was no concern for Nebraska Head Coach Rhonda Revelle, who always tries to make a personal connection with her players.
“I could tell it was hard for her to talk on the phone, so I just tried to ask questions to get to know her,” Revelle said. “I made it less about Nebraska Softball and more about getting to know MJ. That is how I prefer it anyway because it is about building relationships. I believe MJ is motivated by people and feeling comfortable in her surroundings, and I think she was able to determine that Nebraska would be a good fit for her because we have common values.”
Having made a personal connection with Revelle, Knighten agreed Nebraska was a good fit following her visit to Lincoln.
“I initially considered Nebraska as an option after I talked on the phone with Coach Revelle a couple of times,” Knighten said. “I felt like I could be myself when talking to her. I knew Nebraska was the place for me after my unofficial visit. The culture and people made my experience great and when I went to visit again for my official visit, I still had the same ‘butterfly’ feeling so I knew Nebraska was the place for me.”
At Nebraska, Knighten will have the opportunity to be Nebraska’s starting third baseman after graduating from Sunny Hills High School, where Oklahoma Head Coach patty Gasso once coached. A native of Buena Park, Calif., Knighten appears up to the challenge of being a freshman starter. She earned second-team high school All-America honors as a senior for Sunny Hills, when she batted .478 with 12 doubles, two triples, nine homers and 30 RBIs. In her prep career, Knighten produced a .456 average with 30 doubles, eight triples, 28 homers and 81 RBIs.
Last fall, Knighten impressed the Husker coaches by starting each of Nebraska’s eight games against Division I opponents and producing six hits and five RBIs.
“MJ is a great athlete who we anticipate to step on the field from day one and be a key player for us at third base,” Revelle said. “She communicates exceptionally well on the field - especially as a freshman - and she plays with an energy that infuses enthusiasm in her teammates.”
Once afraid to come out of her shell, Knighten’s communication is now a strength. After using softball as an opportunity for personal growth, Knighten has plans this spring to use her position as a freshman starter as an opportunity to help the Huskers reach their lofty goals.
“My vision for the Nebraska softball team in 2014 is that we become Big Ten champions and go back to the Women’s College World Series.”
Three Things You Didn’t Know About MJ
1) She is terrified of ladybugs.
2) She can be socially awkward at times.
3) She is scared of the dark.