By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
POLAND -- Anchoring what some believe might have been the best Poland High softball team in school history, pitcher Sarah Knill is walking away from the diamond with plenty of honors.
None are as important to the future Indiana University of Pennsylvania pitcher as the memories created by her closest influences.
"In 10 years of my playing, my dad missed maybe two games at most," said Knill, who this spring received state honorable mention and first-team district honors by the Ohio Softball Coaches Association. "It's a good thing he has a flexible job.
"And my mom, she was incredible at planning our team's spring-break trips," Knill said. "She spent hours and hours planning. If it wasn't for her, they wouldn't have happened."
For leading Poland to a 21-7 record including another Metro Athletic Conference title and a berth in the Ohio tournament regional finale, Knill (14-5 and one of the team's leading hitters) has been selected The Vindicator's Softball Player of the Year.
"It was a very special season," Knill said. "For the past two years, this team has been very close. We do lots of things together -- sleepovers, scavenger hunts.
"South Carolina was lots of fun, even though it meant 14-hour bus rides," Knill said of the Bulldogs' spring trip. "We just made the best of it. It was a great chance for us to bond, to create team unity."
Playing the first games of the season against elite competition was a bonus.
"They are non-pressure games because they don't really mean anything, so it's a great way to start off the year," Knill said.
Knill's parents, John and Josie, moved from Ontario to Poland 10 years ago. Their daughters, Ashleigh and Sarah, joined Poland Community Baseball Association and the Knills have been busy softball parents ever since.
"We used to have a cottage up in Canada that we would go to in the summer," Knill said. "It was very special to them, but they ended up selling it because we didn't have enough time to go up there. It was a huge sacrifice for them."
One reason she chose Division II Indiana, where she will major in psychology and minor in communications, is because it's close enough (less than two hours drive time) for her parents to see some games.
"When I started thinking about college, I first wanted to look at California, but then I realized I couldn't be that far away from home," said Knill, whose sister attends Ohio State.
Knill, who led the Bulldogs to the 2001 Div. II state title game where they lost a heartbreaker, 1-0 in 11 innings to Lima Bath, began pitching at age 8 with Poland Community Baseball Association.
Among those she credits for her development are pitching coach Dom DeLuca and Bill Fonagy, her manager on several youth teams.
And she'll miss playing for Reid Lamport, the Poland coach who is The Vindicator's Softball Coach of the Year.
"He's an all-around good guy," Knill said. "He's very motivational.
"Last year before we played Tallmadge, he gave an incredible speech, the best I've ever heard. It was so motivational and had every player so pumped up," Knill said. "He's very team-oriented -- he always cares about the kids. And he's very smart -- he knows what he's doing in softball."
Lamport's immediate challenge for next year is replacing five other graduating seniors who contributed to the Bulldogs' success: Tiffany Fonagy (first base), Emily Patton (center field), Aslyne Rodriguez (left field), Michelle Nespeca (third base) and Lori DelSignore.
Asked to recall the highlight of the 2002 season, Knill responds, "The Boardman game, even though the outcome wasn't what we wanted."
After many years of not playing each other, Boardman (the state defending Div. I champion) played Poland in a regular-season game on May 9. Boardman won, 1-0, in eight innings but only after Poland had a run wiped out on a bizarre interference call.
"It was a very fun game," Knill said. "We know a lot of the girls [from summer games] and it was fun to play in a [regular-season] game."
This summer, Knill is staying in shape for Indiana by playing summer ball with the Hubbard-based Raging Thunder. One of her teammates is Poland outfielder Katie Naumoff.