You can’t pitch any better than Pitt true freshman Brittany Knight did Feb. 10, in her first game of college competition. Still, she was startled when a trainer approached her during a practice the next week.
“Oh, congrats on ACC Pitcher of the Week,” the trainer said.
“I was like, ‘What? Like, what in the world?’” Knight recalled.
Knight took the circle for the first time in a Panthers uniform on a Friday night in Florida in the middle of February, and she performed like a seasoned vet. Facing the University of Central Florida Knights at the UCF Invitational in Orlando, Florida, Knight pitched a complete game shutout in Pitt’s 6-0 win.
“It was weird because you come here, you’re so excited to have your first college outing, you’re a freshman, you’re nervous, especially being a pitcher,” Knight said. “You lead the team on defense. You lead the team through the game. And to be able to lead them well my first weekend out and be rewarded was really great.”
By the time the weekend was over, Knight already had two more wins and a save to her name — all without allowing an earned run in 16 2/3 innings of work. She made for an easy choice for the first ACC Pitcher of the Week award in 2017.
“It was a great feeling, because my team was behind me, and they contributed to me getting that. Everyone was just really excited for me,” Knight said about the award. “I think it was nice because it helped my family realize how hard I’ve been working here this winter, and that I can do this.”
Judging by her performance, the recognition shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Although she was competing on a bigger stage and at a higher level, baffling batters is nothing new to her.
Coming from a hometown of about 2,000 people in Windham, Ohio, Knight now spends every day at Pitt with a softball family about half as large as her entire high school class.
She was one of 42 students in her graduating class at Windham High School.
“[At home] some years we didn’t even have enough girls to field a softball team,” Knight said. “Not a lot of kids branch out and go to college, and not a lot of kids understand what it’s like to play college athletics. I think me being here shows them that they can do it too.”
But she still relies on the support of her immediate family to get her through the day.
“I think the main thing I do is take time out of my day to talk to my family. I’m very close to my parents,” Knight said. “Whether it’s riding on the 10A up from the Cathedral or after practice and I’m frustrated with whatever, I’ll just call them and talking to them will make me feel better.”
Even with Knight away from home and competing in tournaments across the country, her parents still find a way to cheer her on from the stands. They traveled more than 1,000 miles down the coast from the family’s hometown to catch their daughter’s first bit of college action.
“They always came to stuff, or they took turns, or they’ve taken time off work for me. They’ve always supported me, been there for me, and made sure I had what I needed. It’s just such an important thing to have as an athlete — your parents supporting you,” Knight said.
Knight started playing softball when she was 5 years old, joining a league where the coaches pitch to the kids. She didn’t join a league where the players pitch until she was 9, but it didn’t take long for her to discover her primary position.
“Brit didn’t start off as a pitcher. She was just a proficient player,” said her father, Allen. “I guess through default, in one of our earlier tournament games, she got placed on the mound. Although she was pretty wild, she settled down and did pretty well. She liked that leadership role of being a pitcher as opposed to being a position player.”
Her mother Diana was her first coach, but soon Allen took over and coached her in travel ball up until she was in seventh grade. After that, he said they had to step back and let her learn from other people.
Allen said he and his wife have dedicated their lives to supporting their kids, but during his daughter’s first college game, his focus was just as much on his daughter’s team as her individual accomplishment.
“My reaction was thankfulness to her teammates,” Allen said. “They worked hard, really hard in the offseason. That’s what I told her, that her success is based on everyone around her, and that’s the way [she has] to think.”
Although playing alongside new teammates, Knight might as well have been back in her hometown, tossing shutouts for the Windham Bombers with her parents looking on. Over the course of her high school career, she won numerous awards and mowed down more than 1,000 batters, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA as the school’s valedictorian.
“Brittany has that makeup that few kids have. It’s hard to explain what she’s about,” Allen said. “Even in school, she had to be the valedictorian. It’s about everything she does. If she works a summer job, she has to be the best salesman. It’s who Brittany is.”
From leading the Bombers to back-to-back Northeast Athletic Conference championships to her flawless first week with the Panthers, Knight’s competitive nature allows her to block out the noise and just pitch.
“She’s internally driven. We never had to tell her to do things, she always just did it,” Allen said. “I have three kids, and that’s what sets her apart from the rest of the kids. She never had to be steered in a direction, she steered herself.”
Knight fielded several offers for Division I scholarships, including one from Ohio State University. But she made her mind up early on where she wanted to play in college, giving her verbal commitment to Pitt during her sophomore year of high school.
She was looking forward to having a pitching coach that would work with her every day and push her to be her best. Panthers pitching coach Lauren Cognigni — a former star pitcher at Saint Joseph’s University — has provided that for Knight.
“I think she was really excited to get with Lauren and to have a pitching coach that she could work with every day. I mean I know she was because we talked about it,” Pitt head coach Holly Aprile said. “She’s really like a sponge. She takes in all the information.”
Aprile recognized Knight’s competitive spirit early on in the recruiting process, and said the first-year pitcher has instilled the same mindset in her more-experienced teammates.
“We have greater depth, we have a lot of competitiveness, a lot of drive to be better, to be great,” Aprile said. “This was a kid that just went out and attacked it.”
When Knight arrived at Pitt, the Panthers already had a pair of established pitchers on the roster. Junior Kayla Harris won 16 games last season, and sophomore Sarah Dawson has been effective as both a starter and a reliever. Both have pitched a perfect game in the last two seasons, and both know what it takes to succeed at the Division I level.
But Knight didn’t shy away from the competition, instead using their experience to her own benefit.
“When I first came here, I was watching them a lot,” Knight said of Harris and Dawson. “Sarah, she just goes out there and she throws the ball hard. No matter what. [As for] Kayla, I think I’ve learned poise. She’s confident in herself, in her pitches and she’ll stick to her game plan.”
After proving herself a worthy member of the rotation in the team’s opening weekend, Knight became comfortable enough to seek out helpful hints and advice — and even offer some back.
“With them being open and admitting their flaws, that openness where we can just talk to each other and learn from each other has helped me a lot,” Knight said. “I’ll ask them what I’m doing wrong, what I can do to be better and they’ll tell me straight to my face what needs [to be] changed.”
Harris isn’t afraid to admit she’s taken some pointers from her first-year teammate.
“I noticed she lets loose. She’s very relaxed and confident, and I think that kind of rubbed off onto me,” Harris said. “This year, I’ve been a lot more confident and I’ve been taking it one pitch at a time, and when Brittany is out there, you can see that she really owns the mound.”
After the Panthers got off to a 9-0 start to earn their first national ranking in program history and rise as high as the No. 19 team in the nation, the team has endured a rough stretch. Pitt now sits just above .500 at 18-16 overall, but only 1-11 in ACC play.
“I just want [the team] to know I have their backs,” Knight said. “Pitt softball has really come up the past few years, and we’re right there, right on the edge of our breakthrough, of being that powerhouse team … I just really want to make Pitt softball one of the top dogs to mess with.”