Just over three years ago, former Husker MJ Knighten was playing softball for Nebraska.
On Aug. 28, she was announced as the head coach for the University of San Diego softball team after being a part of the team as an assistant coach for just one year.
“It’s a whirlwind of emotions,” Knighten said. “When I first got presented with this opportunity, I was overwhelmed with the thought of being the head coach. But then I had a nice conversation with my mentor, Rhonda Revelle, and she said the fact that I didn't feel ready meant that I was ready to take this on.”
Knighten graduated from Nebraska in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in journalism with an emphasis in broadcasting. After that, she spent another year at Nebraska working as a volunteer coach for the softball team before completing her master's of education in sports management from Wichita State in May 2020. She joined San Diego’s team as an assistant coach for the 2019-20 academic year before being offered the position of head coach. This makes Knighten the first Black female head coach at San Diego and the youngest current head coach in Division I softball at age 25.
“I was extremely excited for her,” Nebraska softball head coach Rhonda Revelle said. “I’ve been fortunate to be in contact with San Diego’s athletic director Bill McGillis throughout their process in selecting a new head coach. We had many phone calls, and I was lucky enough to talk about Knighten’s skillset.”
Knighten spent the 2020 season under head coach Jessica Pistole, who was starting her first year as the Toreros coach. However, after the 2020 season was cut short due to COVID-19, Pistole left the program and returned to her previous coaching gig at NAIA Southern Oregon University. Now that Knighten is running the program, she is beginning to understand the weight of the situation.
“Slowly but surely, I am settling into the new role,” Knighten said. “I think my grit and willingness to be the best coach fuels my fire, and I am excited to see where this new journey goes. I know it's not going to be easy, but this job isn't supposed to be easy.”
Of course, it’s not everyday that a 25-year-old gets a head coaching position. However, Knighten has faith in both San Diego and herself and knows that they offered it to her for a reason.
“I believe, if she wanted to, she would’ve been fine being an assistant coach for a few years,” Revelle said. “But sometimes you gotta take the leap of faith. She has the resources to lean on and, when you get a position like this early on in your career, you’re gonna need to look to people who have experience.”
Not only is Knighten breaking barriers as a young coach in collegiate softball, she’s also breaking racial barriers as well. Knighten knows how much this moment means to all of the Black female coaches that came before her and knows how far they’ve come to make this possible.
“I am honored to be the first Black female head coach at USD,” Knighten said. “There is so much pride behind that statement. The ones who came before me helped create this path. I hold myself to an even higher standard because I am wanting to do right by those who did everything in their ability to help me become this.”
Knighten had an impressive Husker career as well, finishing her four-year career at Nebraska ranked in the top 10 in 10 different categories. She started 228 of 229 games, and she was the program’s first four-time All-Big Ten selection. She was then selected 25th overall in the 2017 National Pro Fastpitch League Draft by the Scrap Yard Dawgs, who went on to win the championship later that summer. Throughout all of it, Knighten not only succeeded individually, but was also a great teammate.
“As a coach, if you had players like MJ, you’re gonna be living large,” Revelle said. “She set the example with her work ethic, giving 100% at all times. The same can be said when she was a teammate. She was kind and always celebrated the successes of her teammates while also being empathetic with them when they were struggling.”
Knighten enters her first year in charge with a solid squad. Last year, San Diego hitters ranked 21st in the nation in doubles with 43. USD’s offensive prowess helped the Toreros get off to their best start since 2013 — posting a record of 15-12 before the season was cancelled.
“I think she’s going to do great,” Revelle said. “There’s going to be struggle, but every coach has that. But, I know she’ll bring what she brought as a player and teammate. She’ll strive to make herself and everyone around her better.”
However, on-field production is only part of Knighten’s goal as a coach.
“My expectations for the team are to bring their best selves every day and to wear USD on their chest with the utmost respect,” Knighten said. “I want to be known for having heart and hustle because, to be able to be successful in this game, you need those two things. I want to build a championship mindset in these girls while at the same time empowering them to be strong women once they cross the stage and get their diploma.”