Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Notre Dame made it very clear to us that they wanted us to succeed both on and off the field.
With the boys of summer returning this week (hooray for baseball!), I thought I’d switch it up and tell the story of a former Notre Dame Softball player for my Throwback Thursday post. Melissa Knecht played softball at Notre Dame from 1988 – 1992, and was a member of the first varsity softball team at Notre Dame. Coached by the Notre Dame legend, Brian Boulac, Melissa had the unique opportunity to not only be on the ground floor of Notre Dame’s brand new softball program, but to help build a legacy as well. How did Melissa end up playing softball for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? Here is Melissa’s story.
“I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is an interesting place to grow up because we have a lot of colleges in the area (Lehigh, Lafayette, Moravian, Cedar Crest, and DeSales), all within a fifteen minute drive. This means there is a lot of sports to follow and watch in the area. My dad played softball (men’s fast pitch) in a church league and one of my earliest softball memories is of going to watch him play. I enjoyed the game so much that I decided it was something I, too, wanted to play when I was older. I joined my first softball team when I was in fifth grade. After a year of play under my belt, I decided I wanted to be where the action was, and not be bored on the field, and that is when I became a pitcher.”
“I went to a lot of camps and put in a lot of time practicing in order to get better. Back then, we did not have computers or cell phones, and there were no YouTube videos to watch, so the only way to get better was to go to these clinics and camps. I worked with the coach at Allentown College (which is now DeSales University), Frank Bicking, quite a bit. My dad would take me out there and we would work on the mechanics of pitching. Some of the biggest names in softball came out of the Stofflet family, and Ty Stofflet was one of the biggest softball phenomes in the Allentown area. The International Softball Congress (ISC) held their world championship in Allentown, and watching them play was incredible. In addition to working with Frank Bicking, I also had the opportunity to work on my pitching with Darryl Stofflet, which was amazing.”
“I never wanted to play any other sports besides softball. It was exactly what I wanted to do. When I was in the eighth grade my dad made me try basketball for a season, and I could not shoot to save my life. However, I could block, rebound, and foul people like nobody’s business. I had no interest in running, though, (and never have) which made softball so much more appealing to me. My other option was volleyball, but the volleyball team practiced before school, and I did not want to get up that early. When I was growing up, there just were not as many sports for women as they are today. I may have wanted to try lacrosse, but it was not an option, and field hockey was big back then, but the field hockey season conflicted with the softball. Honestly, I just loved softball too much. I did dance a little bit, but softball was my true love. There was a school nearby our house, and I spent a great majority of my time up there playing softball at the school yard.”
“I went to softball summer camps at Rutgers University every year. One of the coaches who coached at the summer camp was the coach from Princeton, and my dream college was Princeton, so doing these camps at Rutgers was very helpful for me. It gave me great exposure, not only to Princeton, but also to other colleges and college coaches. My 18 & under team was a travel team, and the way it worked was in order to travel, you had to win a certain number of games to qualify for that travel. Then you had to win state and regional tournaments in order to go to the national tournament. My dad was one of our coaches, and it was such a fantastic experience for me. It definitely helped to prepare me to transition to the next level.”
“When it came time to seriously start looking at colleges, Princeton was my number one choice, hands down. It is where I wanted to go. Furman University in South Carolina was a close second. The third school I was interested in was Rutgers University. I was getting letters from a lot of schools on the East Coast and the Midwest, but Princeton was where I wanted to go. At the time, Notre Dame did not have a softball team, so it was not on my radar at all. My freshman year (of college) was the first year that softball was a varsity sport at Notre Dame. My high school physics teacher, John Rosenberger, had gone to Notre Dame and had played in the marching band. He was friends with Notre Dame coach, and at the time Assistant Athletic Director, Brian Boulac. One day, Mr. Rosenberger pulled me out of psychology class to tell me, ‘Hey, I just saw in my Notre Dame Alumni letter that ND is starting a softball team. My friend, Brian Boulac, who has been a football coach at ND and is currently their Assistant Athletic director, is going to coach the team for the first few years. Do you want me to give him a call for you?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely!’ At that point, I had already committed to play softball at Furman University in South Carolina and had even sent in my deposit, but I let my physics teacher give Coach Boulac call, and I sent Coach Boulac a VHS tape of my highlights. In return, Coach Boulac sent me a Notre Dame application. I started filling it out, and within two weeks Coach Boulac was on the phone offering me a partial scholarship, and just like that, without even visiting the school, I was headed to Notre Dame.”
“Why did I change my mind? Well, the academics that Notre Dame had to offer was a huge advantage for me. In addition, being on the ground floor of a softball program, and being able to build a legacy (which we did) was such an incredible opportunity, and I am so glad I made that leap. As I headed off to college, my goal was to study medicine, and I knew that Notre Dame was going to give me a great education and set me up for success in my future profession. In some ways it was easier to go into a softball program that was not established, but at the same time we were under a great deal of pressure to do well. I wrote a letter to Furman explaining my decision. Three of the seniors on my high school softball team headed to college to continue playing softball. One went to Indiana, one went to Furman, and I went to Notre Dame.”
“When I accepted the scholarship offer to attend and play softball at Notre Dame in 1988, I didn’t even know where Notre Dame was located. Growing up in Allentown, halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, we were in the heart of Penn State country, and the biggest game of the year every year was the Notre Dame/Penn State game. Honestly, I thought Notre Dame was located near Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, it did not matter where Notre Dame was located. I knew it was going to be an incredible opportunity for me, both academically and athletically, and I was ready to accept the challenge. And just like that I was headed to Indiana.”
For some, the transition from playing a sport in high school to playing a sport at the college school level is a daunting challenge, but not so for Melissa. “For me the transition was seamless, but I also played on a travel team in high school, and faced some tough competition. We played some incredibly tough teams in California and Texas, against many girls who would also go on to play in college as I did. One of the players on a team we played in Pittsburgh went on to play at Akron University and was on the USA team. I think because I played at such a high level in high school, and because the teams we played my freshmen year at Notre Dame weren’t super tough (because no one wanted to play a first year program), the transition was pretty painless for me. The classes at Notre Dame were harder. The level of competition was harder. However, we had exceptional coaches and players around us, and the more we practiced and played together, the better we got together. No incoming freshmen knows what to expect as they move up to the college level, especially when you move up and into a brand new program. We had a team comprised of some of the girls from the ND club softball team, some of the girls from the ND varsity field hockey team (that had been cut to make way for ND varsity softball), and four incoming freshmen; and as the year progressed we all got better together.”
“I will say this, being a pre-med/biology major was rough. What it taught me, though, was how to manage my time. And you learned how to do that fast. I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. At the beginning, I was not sure exactly what part of medicine I wanted to focus on, and then orthopedics seemed like it was going to be the perfect fit for me as an athlete, because it was sports related. At Notre Dame, you could pursue pre-med two ways. You could study pre-med in the college of science, or in the college of arts and letters. I decided to study pre-med in the college of science, with a major in biology. I probably could have gotten better grades had I gone the arts and letters path, but I liked science and so science was a good fit for me.”
“When I was at Notre Dame, the fencing coach (and mechanical engineering/thermodynamics professor) Mike DeCiccio was in charge of advising the student-athletes at Notre Dame, and made sure we received the academic help (tutoring) we needed. I only took advantage of tutoring once, for organic chemistry, and it turned out I learned more from that tutor than I did from my professor. But the fact that this resource was available to us, and at no cost, showed us that they viewed us as students first and foremost, and athletes second. At that point, the softball team did not have a mandatory study hall (only the basketball and football teams did). We had to be self-disciplined and make sure we were studying on our own time. As student-athletes at Notre Dame, we all stuck together. Not only did we hang out, but we also supported each other and tried to keep each other accountable. The bonds that we made at Notre Dame were so strong and this is why I am still involved in the Monogram Club today. I met so many people at Notre Dame, not only from other sports, but also from other countries and cultures. It was an incredible opportunity and experience for me.”
“Another advantage that student-athletes had at Notre Dame was being able to take classes during the summer semester. I took classes in the summer so that I could carry a lighter load during the spring when softball was in season. The summer before my junior year, I took three classes over the summer so that I would only have to take 15 credits in the spring instead of 21, knowing I would have to study for the MCATs along with taking classes and playing softball. Not all colleges offer that to their student-athletes. Notre Dame made it very clear to us that they wanted us to succeed both on and off the field.”
“As a women studying pre-med, there were more men in my classes than women. Well, there were also more men at Notre Dame than women just in general, but that did not bother me. My professors did not treat the women any differently. In addition to school and softball, I also had an on campus job to help with financial aid. One year, my job was to call alumni asking for donations, and I got yelled at by several gentlemen who were sour because women were at Notre Dame. While I was not treated differently in my classes, I did notice some different treatment as a female athlete. I even wrote a paper on it for my gender studies class. I hurt my knee in the fall of my sophomore year and needed surgery. I had my surgery and spent the night in the infirmary, and then was to go to physical therapy in the training room. I also still had to go to practice, even if I could not practice, as you were expected to continue observing and learning. I also had to go to my classes, so I went to the training room to do my therapy when I could go. One day, when I was in the training room getting my physical therapy, I was accused of only going during the times that the football players were there. However, this was not the case. I was going to physical therapy when I could fit it in around classes and practice, not to hang out with the football team. They didn’t treat me like an athlete, but as woman trying to meeting guys, and that was somewhat frustrating.”
“Our softball field didn’t have a dugout, we didn’t have a locker room or showers, and had to shower at the Eck Center if we wanted to do it before we got back to our dorm rooms. (Most of the time we just went back to our dorms.) We did not have the benefits that many of the other sports had, but we did not care. We did not expect those things, though, as the varsity softball program was so new. We were thrilled to have fans in the stands, and we did not mind not having any of the perks. My teammates and I had such great relationships not only with each other, but with the coaches and trainers as well. By my senior year, the benefits started to come. What we had was not fancy, but we did not need fancy. We just wanted the opportunity to play the sport we loved.”
“In the winter and early spring, as we were getting ready for our season, we would practice in Loftus when the weather was bad. They would give us priority over the football team to practice in there, as it was our season. The football players would be sitting in the bleachers watching us practice and waiting for their turn. In fact, that is how I met Coach Holtz. He was there with his team, waiting for us to finish, and he came over and asked Coach Boulac if he could have a bat and take a swing at one of my pitches. Coach Boulac said, ‘Lou, I’ll pay you. Here you go!’ He stood there, and watched a few of my pitches and then said, ‘nah, never mind, I think I’m going to stick to golf.’ (laughs) Coach Boulac just had that confidence in me, and he truly cared about all of the girls on the team. He may have yelled at us, but he was not really yelling at you, he was yelling at the situation and what your role was in the situation. It never bothered me. He just naturally had a big booming voice.”
“For me, wearing the Notre Dame uniform, being able to see the Dome from the pitcher’s mound, knowing that I played softball for the University of Notre Dame; there was no other feeling in the world like it.”
A student-athlete’s relationship with their coach is an import part of their success in their sport. Melissa spoke with me about her relationship with her coach at Notre Dame. “Coach Boulac was most definitely a father figure to me, and an exceptional coach. He was fair, and made sure he fostered relationships and trust between his players. He took on our team the same way he took on football. His daughters had played softball growing up so he was familiar with the game. He brought on the club coach (Joe Speybroeck), as well, who brought a lot of softball knowledge with him, and he brought in a pitching coach who had played men’s fast pitch in Indiana to work with us. What he did not know about the game he learned. We had long practices but they were good practices, and I always felt I could go to him with anything.”
“We had a girl on the team who was an aerospace engineering major who also did ROTC on top of softball, and Coach Boulac was always flexible with her, allowing her to balance her academics along with softball. When you are a student-athlete at Notre Dame, you are a student first and an athlete second. We had practice, and it was mandatory for you to be there, but if you had a class or lab that conflicted with practice, coach was always willing to work with you. As long as you told him ahead of time, he’d make sure your classes came first.”
And here it is … what is your favorite softball memory from your time at Notre Dame? “We were playing a game against DePaul (I think), on our home field, and on my first pitch of the game I gave up a home run, dead center. My catcher came to talk to me and said, ‘what happened?’ We talked for a few moments, I shook it off, and then we hunkered down. I went on to not give up a run the rest of the game AND we won the game. That was such an incredible moment, to see us rally together and get the win even after a start like that.”
“Another great memory for me was the very first win of the program. Our very first game was supposed to be in Evansville, Indiana, over spring break and it snowed. We practiced in an army armory inside, and then played the game across the state line in Kentucky. We were playing Kentucky Wesleyan, and that was our very first win as a varsity softball team. And then in my sophomore year I pitched a perfect game against Saint Mary’s, and that was a pretty special win for me as well, but that very first win as a varsity program was the most special to us all.”
So many of the things that student-athletes learn while playing their sport can be applied toward their future careers. Melissa spoke with me about the things that she learned while playing softball, and how they have applied to the rest of her life. “I played softball, which is a team oriented sport, and when you play a team sport you have to learn how to play with others and work toward a common goal. You may not be best friends with everyone, but you still have to get along with everyone. You have to learn and know their strengths and weaknesses, to be able to trust your teammates and coaches, and to be able to manage every moment of your day. On bus rides to and from games, you either slept and studied later, or studied and slept later, but you made the most of every minute of your day. You set small goals for yourself that laddered up to your bigger goals. It’s how I got through Physicians Assistant (PA) school.”
You’ve heard the saying: you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time… “Sometimes, if you looked at the big picture, it was just too overwhelming. However, if you broke things down into bite-sized goals, it was so much more attainable. You had to learn how to take things one-step at a time. If you had three tests the next day, you would have to prioritize which one you needed to study for most and start with that. That is how I got through graduate school. The other thing you learn while playing a team sport is how to communicate effectively. Your fellow players need to know what you are doing in order for you all to be on the same page. For example, everyone needs to know the catcher’s sign so that they are all on the same page. You also need to learn how to cheer for your teammates, and later on your co-workers. Even if I was not the starting pitcher, I would cheer the pitcher on and do what I could to help her be more successful. Helping your teammates is important because it also helps the team as a whole. All of these concepts translate well into everyday life and professional careers.”
“After I graduated from Notre Dame I didn’t get into medical school right away, and that was totally okay. At the time, I was upset but I made the best of it. I coached a junior varsity high school softball team, and was the pitching coach at two local colleges. Then, the Athletic Director at DeSales University (which was one of the schools I was coaching at) told me they were starting a Physicians Assistant (PA) program, and asked me if I would be interested in pursuing that in graduate school. I had looked into the PA profession before, and it did look more appealing to me than becoming a doctor because I did not have to deal with the insurance companies and I would get to do more patient care, so I decided to try it. I had been looking at going to graduate or medical school at Seton Hall, or at some schools in Philadelphia, but this program was right in my back yard, and so that made it more appealing as well. I got in to the program at DeSales University and was in their first class of PA’s. Today it is one of the hardest programs to get into with a 100% pass rating (passing your licensing exam). Today they get 3,000 applications for 40 spots, so it is very competitive. I feel very blessed that once again I was able to get in on the ground floor of a program.”
“I earned my master’s degree in the PA program at DeSales University, and before I had even graduated I accepted a job at Coordinated Health, which is now part of the Lehigh Valley Health Network. I started working there right out of school, and I have been there for 21 years (this August). We are also the team doctors for Lehigh University and several other universities in the area, as well as for many local high school athletes. I am able to be right there on the field, caring for athletes, and it allows me to continue to be involved in sports. I absolutely love it. I know that very few people stay at the same company for as long as I have. It is very rare today. However, I also know that on the flip side of that, many companies do not keep people that long either. It is a give and take by both the employee and the company to be able to accomplish that, and as a former student athlete, I think I am very good at that. I love hiring athletes because I know they have the qualities that they need to be successful in this job. I also volunteer with the Pre-PA club at Notre Dame. I just wrote a letter of recommendations for one of the girls who came and shadowed me, and I’m able to do all of this through the Monogram Club at Notre Dame.”
Melissa shared with me her words of wisdom for student-athletes looking to pursue their athletic careers at the college level and beyond. “Keep working hard, and know that you are stronger than you think. When you think it is too hard, keep pushing yourself. You are strong. You can do it, or you would not be there. The percentage of students who make it to the Division I level is very small. But just because you have made it there, does not mean you will not face adversity and struggles. You have to keep working, keep learning, and keep moving forward. Use the resources around you. They are there for a reason. Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you do not take your shot, you will never know where you could have gone. With the internet at your fingertips, you not only have resources (such as tutors), but you have an endless amount of information right there within your reach. Use it! My mom bought me a word processor when I went to Notre Dame so that I did not have to go to the computer lab to write papers. Because of my having that, I typed many papers for other people, which made me good at typing. We helped each other out whenever we could.”
“Believe in yourself, trust in yourself, and trust in the process. Your parents and coaches, who have pushed you in the past, will continue to push you in the future as they all believe in you. Your teammates also believe in you as you are all in it together. You are only going to grow and get stronger being at a Division I school like Notre Dame. You will learn the lessons in college that you will need to be successful for the rest of your life. As I am sure you have heard people say about Notre Dame Football, you give four years to Notre Dame and Notre Dame will give you forty years of support in return. That is how all of the student-athletes feel. You do not go to a school like Notre Dame just to graduate. You go to a school like Notre Dame to be successful for life.”
“I’ve tried to teach my daughter the importance of giving back. We do a lot of work with the homeless population in our area. My softball catcher daughter does beauty pageants as well, and part of the pageant she is going to participate in this August is called “Crown to Serve.” She has been fundraising in order to help feed the local homeless. She has done fasting to raise money for people who don’t have enough to eat, and we’re also going to do an archery shoot to raise funds for the homeless shelter here in Allentown. I also volunteer at a free clinic through DeSales University, and we raise money for the medical supplies that we use there and at the homeless shelter.”
Melissa Knecht and her husband currently live in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with their daughter, and Melissa continues to support Notre Dame through her involvement in her local Notre Dame Club as well as the work she does with the Notre Dame Monogram Club.
Cheers & GO IRISH!