When John Knop and others began putting together the 9-11-year-old Harris County All-Star softball team, they anticipated a shortage of opponents for the District 8 tournament in Columbus.
That shortage, however, turned out not only true for the Columbus area, but also the entire state.
Harris County was the only team entered at the 9-11-year-old division in all of Georgia. Therefore, Harris County earned a spot in the Tournament of State Champions in Clarksville, Tenn., just by signing up.
“We’re the district and state champs without even getting dirty,” said Knop, the team’s manager and the vice president of Harris County’s junior/senior girls and major girls softball.
As a result, the team is looking to raise money for the tournament, which begins July 21. The team has set up a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $5,000 to cover travel expenses for the 13 players and their families. Donations can also be made at any Wells Fargo to the “Harris County Little League Softball Donation Account” or by writing a check to HCLLS Donation Account.
The team has been nicknamed the “Sun Tzu softball team” after the sixth century B.C. Chinese general who said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The team’s berth in the tournament was unconventional, but that narrative holds true for Harris County softball the last few years.
Knop recalled his daughters voicing their interest in softball two years ago, so Knop and his wife Emilie took their daughters to tryouts. While the kids were busy on the diamond and their parents watched from the stands, Knop quickly noticed something was amiss.
“I’m seeing the girls try out, and there’s not one coach out on the field,” Knop said. “I look at my wife and said, ‘Who are they trying out for? There’s no coaches.’ After the tryouts were over, a lady walks up to the fence and says, ‘Hey, we need coaches.’”
Like a scene from a movie, when many parents undoubtedly took a step back, several fathers stood up and volunteered. Knop was among them.
Knop admits the path from there wasn’t perfect. Many of the players were inexperienced, leading to some dreadful losses and games that simply dragged on. The learning curve was just as steep for those volunteer coaches, including Knop, whose chosen sport had been cycling.
Knop explained how he beefed up his softball knowledge for his unexpected role.
“I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos, that’s for sure,” said Knop, whose 11-year-old daughter Annalise is on the All-Star team. “I’ve read books and watched videos. We’re fortunate enough for our kids to have enough talent to make it onto travel teams, so I take mental and literal notes when I go to these practices. If I see a drill I like, I’ll put that in the file cabinet in my brain or write it down.”
The team may have advanced because there were no challengers, but Knop said there’s been significant improvement talentwise in the past few years. He attributed the growth to the parents’ all-in mentalities to the sport as well as the hard work each player has put in.
“The abilities they’ve been able to gain in that short amount of time is somewhat unbelievable,” Knop said. “We had no pitchers and no coaches, so for us to even be competitive at this stage is kind of a miracle.”
While the trip to Tennessee is at the forefront of the team’s agenda right now, Knop said there are other ways the community can help Harris County’s softball program.
Like most Little Leagues, Harris County’s is strapped for cash, which makes must-haves such as uniforms more of a burden to buy. Knop also said bringing in more-experienced coaches would be tremendous, because despite the work from himself and the others, their learning-on-the-fly coaching leaves room for improvement.
Knop and the others have a great vision for the future of Harris County softball and have laid the groundwork for building something worthwhile.
But first, this team — finally — has a game to play.
“We want them to have fun,” Knop said. “This trip, we can hopefully find out that we are competitive among the best of the rest from other states and let them get a glimpse of the bigger picture. Hopefully, we can go out and work harder to get to the next level.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports