It was a softball foundation built on sand. But it became the rare example that such a normally unsettled base could remain solid enough to weather any storm.
On a stroll across the white sand of Florida's Fort Walton Beach, Don Howard noticed something that seemed out of place among the sunbathers, kite flyers and people tossing Frisbees around. What the 8-year old girl firing underhand pitches to her father lacked in form, she made up for with enthusiasm for softball.
Howard returned to his family and informed his daughter, Baylor School softball coach Kelli Smith, that there was a young girl pitching at the other end of the beach. So Smith and her dad walked over and introduced themselves, and that chance meeting with young Macy Ann McKnight and her parents opened the door for one of the most impressive prep softball careers in Chattanooga history.
"We had no idea who they were," Smith said. "We're just a softball family and thought it was neat to see this little girl out there pitching. Once we started talking, we found out that they were from north Georgia and knew some of the same people in the softball community that we did.
"That was just odd. This was a kid who could've been from anywhere in the country, and she was from the same area as us. We've joked about recruiting her because she was 8 and couldn't throw it in the ocean back then. We talked about softball for a long time that day, and the next summer Macy Ann wound up coming to one of our summer camps for kids."
McKnight eventually enrolled at Baylor and not only earned a spot on the varsity of one of the top programs in the state as an eighth grader, she finished with an 8-0 pitching record to help Baylor win a state championship.
She then proceeded to help the Lady Red Raiders win state each of the next three seasons as well, and before the coronavirus pandemic cut short the TSSAA's 2020 spring sports season, Baylor was loaded for a shot at an unprecedented sixth straight state title. McKnight was set to be a senior leader and potentially become the first player in program history to be a five-time champion.
"I had kind of grown up in the program, had learned from a lot of older players and was really excited to get to have my turn to be a senior leader for the younger players coming up," said McKnight, who also was the only senior on Baylor's basketball team that reached the state tournament semifinals. "Honestly, it's been heartbreaking to lose our season. I was still doing drills in my backyard right up until the day they told us our season was canceled just because I wanted to be ready in case we got to get back out there and play.
"Coach Smith and I have had a special relationship ever since we first met because we both love the game so much. I'm happy with what we accomplished in my first four years, but I really wanted to get to finish my career on the field, trying to win another championship with my teammates. That's what I'll always feel like I missed out on as a senior — those relationships with my teammates and Coach Smith."
All three Baylor seniors will continue their careers at the collegiate level — McKnight with West Georgia, outfielder Makayla Packer with Auburn and catcher Sophie Piskos with Louisiana-LaFayette. Packer also owns multiple state titles in track sprint events.
After cruising through her first varsity season undefeated, McKnight proved her tenacity as a freshman with how she rebounded from a tough loss. After recording just one out and giving up three runs in a state tournament game against rival GPS, McKnight bounced back later that day, coming on in relief to strike out two batters with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, then closing out the win that wrapped up the championship.
"That's what separated Macy Ann: that competitive spirit," Smith said. "To see her start the day off with a bad outing but then come back in a crucial situation later that same day and pull out the win for us, that's still one of my proudest moments as a coach."
As a sophomore, McKnight drove in the winning run for the state title, and last season she went 2-for-3 with a home run and made a key defensive stop at first base in the win that clinched another championship.
Going into this season, McKnight had a 49-3 pitching record with a 1.17 ERA and 240 strikeouts, and the Lady Red Raiders were 137-15 overall with her in the lineup.
"If you really look at what she's been a part of and the success she's contributed, she's been amazing for us," Smith said. "What Macy Ann has done in her career, that doesn't come around very often. She had the chance to become the first player in our program's history to win five straight titles.
"But really, whether we could've won another one or not, I just wanted her and all of our seniors to have the chance to end it on the field the way they should have."