WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Retirement Hasn’t Slowed Down Knierim
By Lacy Lee Baker
During her college coaching days, former St. Louis Community College at Meramec Coach Celeste Knierim was always on the move. Whether coaching her team to national finishes in the NJCAA tournament, taking a group of NJCAA All-Stars to play in Canada Cup or conducting clinics, the 2003 NFCA Hall of Famer was always involved. And, although the 58-year-old Knierim retired from full-time coaching in 2004, it’s apparent that it’s still full-speed ahead for the Missouri native.
It’s been five years since you left the coaching ranks. What keeps you active?
Right now, I’m planning a fall college tournament that I first started in 2006. It’s grown from six teams to 15 teams, with a mix of NJCAA, NAIA, NCAA Division II and a few Division I teams.
In addition, friends Vicki Schneider and Pat Rice and I run a 120-team travel ball exposure showcase at the Chesterfield Complex in St. Louis over Halloween weekend. Last year, 250 coaches attended.
I am still involved in some coaching and teaching through player clinics, or at Vicki’s (Schneider) batting cage facilities and have, also,coached teams on several foreign trips for Dave Eby’s World Sport International company. He really provides the players with a lot on his trips, and I’ve been able to take teams to Europe three times and Australia once for Dave.
With all your coaching experience, and your involvement today, what do you see as the state of the game?
I think it’s changed in that there doesn’t seem to be a focus on the fundamentals or learning the game in the youth age groups like there used to be. They play too many games without enough practices, and many coaches equate the quantity of games played versus the quality of games with excellence. Instead of practicing, it’s all about playing. Unfortunately, I think many coaches today aren’t sure what it takes to run a good practice or how to teach the fundamentals of the game. Sometimes I think that they don't want to push the player for fear they will quit if it is too tough. I think most players want to improve, want to learn, want the discipline and want tough practices.
I consult with some college teams, and I see players who are fundamentally poor at the college level and in taking to them, they were never taught the fundamentals; all they did was play instead of practicing their skills. They wanted to practice and learn. Unfortunately, that is happening in every sport, not just softball.
Was that one of your focuses as a coach?
Yes, I had to spend a lot of time on teaching especially in the fall and I tried to be very positive in doing so. I don’t think most women and girls react very well to extreme negative criticism. Discipline was important, but it was discipline done in a positive way. We lacked the scholarships (only five and a half partials) to get a team full of the best players so we had to teach every aspect of the game and make the team as mentally tough as possible. I hated to see anybody quit and tried to motivate them in fall practices to work harder and get better so they could be successful in the spring.
Do you think your own playing days influenced your philosophy?
Probably; I was an “okay” player, certainly not a standout by any means, so I was always trying to learn proper technique to get the most out of my ability. I played third base, so I didn’t have time to think as much as just react, which was a good thing in my case. I had a pretty good arm, which saved me on defense many times. I also had the right attitude — the team came first — and that helped in my coaching as well.
Obviously softball participation numbers have increased since you played. Some coaches who played in the 60’s and 70’s believe that although that’s a good thing, there’s a different feel to the game now. Do you?
Yes, it's all about being recruited these days and just playing games, and I think some players don't understand the price that was paid to get the level it is today. I started coaching in 1974, and it was probably in 1983 that I saw the attitude change. It went from "this is really cool" to "this is all we get" when the equipment was handed out.
I feel strongly that the history of the game should be a part of the current softball players' curriculum so they understand the path the sport has taken. Softball is still a team sport, as opposed to an individual one, and we shouldn't forget about that aspect of the game.
When I played, we all would sit around the ballpark and watch other games when we weren't playing. There was a lot of camaraderie. Today, players leave with their parents instead of watching other teams, or if they stay, they sit in the stands and text message.
As a JC coach, one of your goals was to help players move on to four-year institutions to finish out their playing careers. How did you go about it?
One of the first things I asked the players was “How far from home do you want to go?”. Many of them didn’t want to go far, but I would try to encourage them to do so. My feeling was that this was the time in their lives to experience new surroundings and a different part of the country.
I grew up in Missouri and went to school at Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State). Although it was a great school, looking back, I really wish that I would have gone to school in Arizona, Colorado or somewhere out of state for my master’s degree to see what other parts of the country were like.
But, finding a right fit for the players was the most important thing. The challenge was getting some of the bigger Division I schools to take a look since they seemed to focus more on freshmen.
The involvement of an NJCAA team at Canada Cup must have helped give some of the better players some exposure?
Yes, we had an NJCAA all-star team that played in the first Canada Cup in 1993 and they continued to go until 2003. It was an unbelievable experience for the junior college athletes to play against top international teams.
It started because Mary Ellen Leicht, then assistant executive director of the NJCAA (now executive director), called and said that the male athletes play international competition, so why not get together a team of female NJCAA players. I called Shan McDonald, who is Canadian and at that time was the UNLV head coach, and she suggested looking into a new tournament just starting called the Canada Cup. Kathy Leitke (Lake Michigan College now Western Michigan), Sheilah Cotten (Louisburg College) and I started contacting sponsors after we were accepted into the tournament. Andrea Gordon at Diamond sports was great about providing equipment, as well as Micheal Gentz at Speedline, Dave Aubuchon at Speedline, Carol Ihlenburg from Ringor and Pam Newton from Easton along with others. We could not have gone without their help. It was a wonderful experience for the players and for the coaches who got to be a part of it.
Now that you’re retired, what else keeps you busy?
Besides the softball part, I’m very involved at my church, St. Paul United Church of Christ in Columbia, Ill. It’s really given me the opportunity to get back into music. As a freshman in college, I had to make a decision on whether I was going to focus on physical education or music, and, obviously, I chose PE. But, I never lost the love of music.
I play in the hand bell choir and clarinet in the church orchestra, and it's really made me realize how much I've missed it. Besides playing in church once a month, the orchestra plays a lot throughout the surrounding communities where I live - Columbia, Illinois, which is right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Even though we are a church orchestra, we have fun playing all types of music We are a big hit on the nursing home circuit.
The other thing I’ve been able to do for the church, which draws on some of the skills learned through coaching, is take seniors from the area on a monthly trip. We’ve been doing it each month for over a year now and have taken the seniors on day trips around the Metro St. Louis area. The next ones are a train trip planned to Washington, Missouri, in September, the Amish country in October and the Fox Theatre in December. The best part for me is to hear them talk and laugh and have a great time just getting out. Many of them are afraid to drive into St. Louis on their own, or they physically cannot drive. I also volunteer in the church office once a week.
One of the most important things that I volunteer for is the Humane Society of Monroe County. I am doing fundraisers for our local shelter that is a no-kill shelter. Like all animal shelters, money is always needed to care for all of the homeless animals. Please spay and neuter your pets.