It's safe to say former Holden softball coach David Knight is a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to coaching.
But he's made up for lost time in a big way.
Knight, who guided Holden to the Class B state championship in late April, was selected by his Livingston Parish peers as the All-Livingston Parish Coach of the Year.
"I was pretty excited," said Knight, who resigned his post after the season but still plans to teach at the school. "I was kind of speechless because there's a lot of good coaches sitting there and there's a lot of good teams sitting there. You don't really know what to say. All you can really say is 'Thank you,' because it's an exciting moment."
Knight was building and driving race cars and doing mechanic work and coaching youth football in Loranger when he decided to go back to school and get a teaching degree at the age of 32.
He earned his degree in 3 1/2 years and went to work coaching football, boys basketball and track at Loranger Middle School in the mid-2000's before moving to Holden to take over the softball program four years ago.
"I had coached travel ball," he said. "I had coached the All-Star team, stuff like that, but never coached high school softball until I got to Holden."
The Lady Rockets advanced to the Class B championship game last season, losing to Florien, 7-0. And that was enough motivation to spur Holden's championship run this season.
"It really hurts when you get there and you lose one of those," Knight said of last season's loss in the championship game. "You really need to experience it one time before you can win it, I think, because the first time, you really don't know what to expect as a coach, as players, as parents. The second time, you have a little more idea so you can plan better."
And it didn't hurt that many of the players from that 2016 runner-up team returned to the fold this season, including pitcher Olivia Lackie, who earned All-Livingston Parish Player of the Year honors.
"They're very smart kids," Knight said. "They knew we had a lot of the pieces to the puzzle in place and obviously we had a great pitcher and she was going to do her job. We knew that we had to start hitting the ball, so we focused a lot on hitting this year. In the past, we probably focused a lot on fielding and hitting about the same, but this year we focused a lot more on hitting, trying to score runs. And we've been doing the fielding stuff for so long they're kind of coming around to where they were really solid in the field and everybody knew where to cover and where to go."
With that in mind, Knight crafted a schedule that featured many playoff teams from several classifications, including Denham Springs High, Live Oak and Zachary from 5A, Class C runner-up Maurepas and Class C champion Plainview.
"We planned a lot different this year because it hurt so bad last year to get that close and come up empty that we changed some of the things and the way we did it this year," Knight said.
"They bought in to what we were trying to do. They're all ball players. They're very competitive. They knew what was at stake the whole year and they knew what could be, and that was important."
The Lady Rockets finished the season 33-1, the only loss coming to Denham in a game in which the Lady Jackets scored on a squeeze bunt for a 1-0 win.
"When you go to play every game, you think you can win every game," Knight said. "If you don't think you can win every game, you don't need to coach. I've always felt like whatever I was going to do -- if I was going to race a car or if I was going to coach a football or a softball game -- I felt like my teams, or I, was as prepared as I could be because i'm very meticulous with little things. I try to cover every single thing, every scenario that could happen. I pride myself on them being well prepared."
Knight pointed to a 5-4 win over Live Oak, an eventual semifinal team in Class 5A, in which the Lady Rockets scored two runs in the 8th inning, and a 2-1 extra-inning win over Grant, a 4A tournament team, as games that stand out during the season.
"Live Oak is the epitome of softball in the parish," Knight said. "If you can compete with them or beat them, then you really feel accomplished."
"(Against Grant) I ran a suicide bunt with two strikes and and a runner at third," Knight said. "We scored the runner, and we were hoping that the catcher would just flinch and check the runner, and check the runner, and she did. She tried to get the runner instead of throwing it to first knowing there was two outs, and we wound up beating them."
As the wins piled up, Knight said one aspect of having such a young and talented team was always present during the season.
"There was more pressure than you could know," he said. "You walk around town, or you walk around school and everybody's thinking you should win it because you've got one of the best pitchers in the state and you've got a bunch of young kids on the field. I mean, eight out of the nine of them will be back next year. That's a lot of pressure when you're that young and you're beating these older teams and you're beating these seasoned teams that are bigger than you. We tried to play a lot of competition and play up a lot so they would be prepared when they got to Sulphur or they would be prepared when they got into the playoffs."
"But at the end of the day, they're kids. It's a lot of pressure as a coach to make sure you do everything right every day, and it's a lot of pressure as a player to make sure you do your part every day."
Holden closed out the regular season with a 3-1 win over Zachary, playing on the Lady Broncos' turf field in a effort to simulate the fields at Frasch Park in Sulphur. Between that game, and the Lady Rockets' first playoff game, a 9-5 win over Monterey after getting a first-round bye, Knight opted to shake things up a bit with the team's practices during the Easter break.
The team practiced in the morning, sometimes in shorts, and listened to music while taking batting practice. Knight said assistant coach Linzey Cifreo, who succeeded him as coach, ran one of the team's practices during the week.
"We were just trying to keep them loose enough that they could play and enjoy the moment instead of focusing on the pressure of the situation," Knight said.
Knight said the team went back to more structured practices after the win over Monterey, and it didn't hurt that the team's focus on hitting paid off down the stretch.
"About the middle of the season, our bats started getting really hot," Knight said. "We started scoring a little more,getting base hits, getting runners, and then we really peaked at the end of the season, which as a coach, that's all you can ask is for them to peak at the right time. They scored a lot of runs when they got to Sulphur against good teams."
The Lady Rockets scored a 5-0 win over Pitkin in the quarterfinals and a 6-0 win over Anacoco in the semis, setting up a game with Stanley in the final. The Lady Rockets grabbed a 6-1 win, but that doesn't mean Knight didn't get a little antsy getting there.
"By the time you get to the 5th inning, you're counting outs, and you're counting strikes in the last inning," he said. "By the time you see that girl swing at that last one and miss, it's just a sigh of relief because you know it's all over with and no matter what happens, they can't take it away from you. You'll always be state champs. You'll have been a part of something great no matter what."
Knight's most lasting memory came after the last out, when his daughter, Madison, the team's freshman second baseman, jumped into his arms for a celebratory hug.
"I didn't get in the pile with them," he said. "I felt like that was their moment and they needed to experience that as a team, so I just kind of stood off to the side.
"The moment that she came and jumped in my arms, you know the look on her face, because she may never be a part of something like that again ... a lot of things happen in high school sports, and that's something you can't take away -- that moment that she realized it was all over and they had won it and she ran over to where I was at."
Rob DeArmond is a sports writer for The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at Robdearm@gmail.com.
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