Alan Knight: The high school coach who quietly won 1,000 games
The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia has a deep history in highly successful sports at the high school level. Some of the efforts have drawn national attention over the decades such as the boys basketball program at the school formerly known as R.E. Lee High and the current efforts of the Riverheads football program. There has been no shortage of outstanding coaches and athletes that have done their schools and communities proud.
High school is similar to college in that most of the stories that grab the spotlight come from football and men’s basketball, The Big 2. Today’s story will be different in that it will focus on a coach that has very quietly collected over 1,000 career victories spread out over three sports at one small school.
Alan Knight attended Page County High School, located just outside the town of Shenandoah. After graduation he crossed over the mountain to attend Eastern Mennonite College, which has since become EMU. After Knight earned his degree, he headed back to Page County and immediately went to work both as a teacher and a coach of both girls volleyball and softball.
Taking over three new jobs at once would have been a challenge on its own, but while he was given a classroom to teach and a gym to coach volleyball, there was no field for the softball team. There was just a backstop and some grass at the time, so the early years required finding a place to play the home games.
Success on the volleyball court came quickly for Knight as he led the Lady Panthers to four state championships inside of the first decade. The sport was in the early stages at both the school and across the state back in the 1980s with the state championship games being played at one of the two competing schools’ own gyms. On the first day of March in 1986, Knight and his Page County squad hosted Rockbridge and swept the Rebels with the scores being 15-4 and 15-13.
In the small press clipping found on pagevalleynews.com, the coverage was roughly four paragraphs, but it did include one quote from Knight.
“They (Rockbridge) played much better in the second game. I don’t think we were overconfident, we took care of that in the huddle between games.”
The quote gives you a great deal of insight in regard to Knight. The coaching style is very business-like, with the goal being to both play the game the right way and act the right way. Nobody will mistake Knight for a celebrity or someone trying to make a name for himself, just a coach that wants his players to be successful and to treat the game with respect.
Knight would continue on with the volleyball team for decades, and when he stepped down from the top spot at Page County, he spent a few seasons helping out with the volleyball team at Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater. His time with the Knights included leading the team for a few matches when the head coach was away from the team. The headline would have written itself – Knight’s Knights for a Night.
The love for the game and the dedication to Page County would later bring Knight back to the top spot for the program a few years later. The team had struggled, going through a number of coaches during his time away, so former athletics director Keith Cubbage asked him to step back in and he did for a few years until the program was back on solid footing.
Stepping in for Page County was nothing new to Knight, as he once realized the golf team could not compete for a stretch of a few seasons because they did not have a coach. Not wanting to see student-athletes miss out on the chance to compete, he signed on to be the head coach for three seasons until the program could regroup and find new leadership. Two of the three seasons, the school lacked the required minimum number of players to officially compete as a team, but there was Knight taking the ones that were there to compete in their matches.
Volleyball and golf are now covered, but it’s time to take a deeper look at the softball team with just a backstop that has been turned into a top-notch program with a pretty impressive home complex.
After capturing the state volleyball championships early on, the success rate slowed down a bit because the game became a power game that would be dominated by height. Sadly for Knight, there is a shortage of six-foot tall girls roaming around in Page County, so there was a long stretch where his tallest player was just 5’7”. Coupled with the lack of developmental programs for the younger players in the area, it became tougher and tougher for Page County to excel in a sport that had become more about big and strong. But there is simply no height requirement for a softball player, and the game is now played year-round, thanks to an explosion of travel ball teams.
The building of the facility is a story on its own, and it plays out like the old Johnny Cash song where he talks about building a Cadillac one piece at a time over 20 years. Of course in the song, Cash is singing about stealing the parts from the auto plant he is working at, but Knight took a different approach. There was a need for everything, and the plan was laid out to build the facility over a number of decades.
While there was a plan for the long haul of the facility, Knight was hoping that creating the program itself could possibly happen at a much quicker pace. The combination of softball not having a height requirement and his attention to detail sent the team off to a level of play they had never experienced before. Both the complex and the team were heading in the right direction, but it’s just girls Class 2A softball, so it wasn’t going to draw a great deal of attention.
Over the years, the dugouts were added, along with side fencing, and eventually an impressive building behind the new backstop. There was now a concession stand, press box and indoor bathrooms for the fans to enjoy. There still was not a permanent fence for the outfield, just a temporary one that was taken down so the JV football team could practice. All of this was done by Knight and a handful of dedicated friends of the program over a long stretch of time.
The scoreboard and the outfield fence were two of the bigger ticket items that took place around 2010 to start to give the field more of a complex look. Success on the diamond was happening as well as the Lady Panthers had made a name for themselves and their ability to simply outwork their opponents with their brand of small ball.
The first career recognition for Knight came in the form of having his name put on the field. Softball is now being played at the Alan Knight Field at the Lady Panthers Softball Complex. Three state titles in the past decade and a few close calls that fell just short have people talking about Lady Panther softball in a big way, as much as possible for high school softball.
Kate Gordon came along, and the program had something it hadn’t seen since Lori Mongold. Gordon could field her position, lead her teammates and crush the ball when at the plate. Knight’s teams always played hard and worked the game for all it could, but now they had a player that was simply a complete package. Gordon would play her four-year career and put up some impressive stats that would give her an opportunity to play Division 1 softball.
Gordon chose to play close to home at up-and-coming James Madison University and just finished her time with the Dukes in style by hitting the game-winning home run to defeat eventual national champion Oklahoma in the opening game of the College World Series.
Knight was there for her every step of the way after her time at PCHS, just as he had been for so many players before they ever reached the varsity program at the school.
The pandemic cost the program one more shot at a state title when their season was lost a couple of seasons ago, but they shook it off and managed to go undefeated when they were able to get back on the diamond a season later.
When you can take a look at the big picture of what Knight has accomplished over his four decades of coaching at his alma mater, it’s hard to decide what order to list them. Coaching other people’s teenage daughters for 40 years without issue might be a good place to start.
Stepping in whenever asked to make sure the school has what it needs to compete is noteworthy. Capturing seven state championships is certainly impressive, and building a facility from the ground up has to make the list. Supporting young players from the early years all the way through and beyond their playing days gets a nod. Breaking 1,000 victories over the length of his time on the rolling hill that sits between Shenandoah and Newport is impressive for sure.
But if I had to list the one thing that has to stand out the most of all of the accolades, it’s easy. The fact that Coach Knight did all of this without anyone even noticing that he had as if he had been hiding in plain sight.
When I first moved to the Valley back at the start of the new millennium, I heard about some of the things coach had already accomplished, and I asked a local reporter why I hadn’t heard more about this man, and the reply I received that night was he doesn’t like to talk about himself. Later that night, I introduced myself to him, and we proceeded to walk around the gym for the next 90 minutes. While Coach Knight might not get excited about talking about himself, he will jump at the chance to talk about his players and his programs.
If you find yourself out in Page County, stop by 184 Panther Drive and check out the complex to appreciate what is now where there was nothing before.
Don’t be surprised if you see Coach Knight out there working on his diamond, because that is what coaches with 1,000 wins without a Nike shoe contract do.
Story by Jerry Carter