Poland's pitching ace and inspirational leader gets up every morning at 5:30 to work out.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
NILES -- Al Cozart squinted, paused for a moment and spit a few sunflower seeds onto the grass a few feet away from the dugout at Waddell Park.
"What can I tell you about Sarah Knill?" the Poland High assistant softball coach said. "Well, she's a good kid."
Chris Notareschi, another Bulldog assistant, added: "She's probably the driving force behind our team.
"She's not the only good player, obviously, but she's good."
Knill, a senior, is the No. 1 starter for the Bulldogs, who -- dare we say it -- could be better than last year's team.
That's high praise, considering Poland lost to Lima Bath 1-0 in 11 innings in last season's Division II state title game.
Knill pitched that game, retiring 16 straight batters at one point, but Poland committed three errors in the 11th to allow the winning run to score.
Knill gave up two runs in five tournament games.
"Last year was my favorite season I've ever played," said Knill, who went 21-5 with a 0.68 ERA in 2001. "We're hoping to get back to state."
They're off to a good start. Knill leads the team with a .417 batting average, has a 0.27 ERA, has struck out 57 and is holding opposing hitters to a .109 batting average.
"She's our inspirational leader," Poland coach Reid Lamport said. "She sort of took the reins of our team last year and that's continued this year."
Poland, which lost just four seniors from last year's team, has given up two earned runs in its first 13 games.
Knill is 6-2, losing 1-0 games to Div. I power Massillon Jackson and Goose Creek High (S.C.), which was 21-2.
Poland's No. 2 pitcher, junior Jessica Lamport, has yet to give up an earned run.
Knill threw a no-hitter, the second of her career, against Niles on April 17.
On Tuesday, she threw a three-hit shutout against the Red Dragons, striking out seven in a 15-0 victory.
Coming to the States
Knill moved to Poland from Canada when she was 8-years-old, which is about the same time she started playing softball.
"We started recruiting her at 3 because we knew she'd be good," Cozart joked.
She gets up every morning at 5:30 to work out, something she has done since she was a freshman, and stays late for extra hitting or pitching practice.
"She's one of the hardest-working girls I've ever had," Lamport said.
"She does almost as much off the field as she does on it."
Said Knill, "I motivate myself. Some days I don't want to get up, but I know I have to."
Knill will play softball at Div. II Indiana (Pa.) University next year -- she decided Monday night; the signing deadline is today.
"I've been thinking about it since October of my junior year," Knill said.
"I thought about Ohio Wesleyan [which is Div. III], but I wanted to play better competition."
She said her parents, John and Josie, "helped immensely" in the decision -- at one point they told her to make a pro and con sheet comparing the schools.
State in mind
For now, she's focused on getting back to the state finals.
She throws an assortment of pitches, including a curve, drop and change, and tries to get batters to beat the ball into the dirt for groundouts.
"I don't overpower hitters," said Knill, who has worked with pitching coach Dom Deluca for eight years. "I just want them to hit something. My defense backs me up."
She plays best in pressure games -- as last year's tournament performance shows -- and is one of the area's best players.
She has reason to boast, but doesn't. She could take credit, but praises her teammates instead.
Not that it's surprising. Like Cozart said, she's a good kid.