Championship Mentality

USD head softball coach MJ Knighten high fives a player


In just a few short years, MJ Knighten has experienced a lifetime of memories on the softball field. Only three seasons removed from her days as a slugging third baseman for the storied University of Nebraska softball program, Knighten became the NCAA’s youngest Division I head softball coach when she was named manager of the USD program in August.

Even more significantly, she became USD’s first Black women’s head coach in any sport. “I’m grateful,” says Knighten. “Shining a light on me being a young African American woman leading strong young women, regardless of their race; I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

When announcing the historic hire, Associate Vice President and Executive Director of Athletics Bill McGillis expressed confidence in her capabilities. “I am so excited for the young women in our softball program. MJ Knighten is a special person with rare leadership qualities for a young coach,” he said. “We’ve watched her grow over the last year as a member of our coaching staff, and I’m very confident she’s the right head coach to build a championship softball program at USD.”

From 2017 to 2018, Knighten served as an assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of Nebraska. She then joined Wichita State University’s coaching staff for the 2018-2019 season before taking the job as the Toreros’ hitting coach under head coach Jessica Pistole last season. As Pistole’s hitting coach, Knighten helped San Diego to their best start to a season since 2013.

Now at the helm, Knighten echoed McGillis’ desire to maintain the positive momentum from last year. “Jessica Pistole gave us an incredible foundation to build on, and I’m excited to continue to grow and shape San Diego softball,” she says. “Our goal is to become a force on the West Coast, while empowering strong women so that they succeed after graduation.”

Despite being a relative newcomer to coaching, Knighten has a wealth of experience. As a player, she helped the University of Nebraska to a Big Ten Conference championship in 2014 and was named to the All-Big Ten team four times. Knighten also played professionally for two years in the National Pro Fastpitch league.

Knighten’s former coaches and colleagues praise her as a player, and a person.

“I could not be more thrilled about the direction that USD softball is headed under Coach Knighten’s leadership,” says Pistole, now head coach at the University of Southern Oregon. “She’s a fierce competitor who has a deep trust in the daily process of what it takes to become a champion. Most notably, she is a bright light who speaks the truth and possesses the superpower of connecting with and bringing out the best in each of her players and coaches.”

Rhonda Revelle, head coach at the University of Nebraska during Knighten’s years as a player and an assistant coach, also has high praise for the Toreros’ new skipper.

“She has an incredible softball IQ, that along with her passion and love for the game, will be motivating and inspiring for her players,” Revelle says. “She’ll build a great team and culture.” — Mike Sauer

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