Former star pitcher Knapp continues softball career in Italy

Rachael Knapp can't stop playing softball. 

A former pitcher who led Central Michigan to a 37-15 record in her senior season, Knapp left Margo Jonker Stadium as one of the greatest softball pitchers CMU fans have ever seen. 

Now, her career continues in Europe.

Knapp signed with the Metalco Thunders — a professional team in the Italian Federation Baseball Softball League

“It all happened so fast,” Knapp said. “My coach said when looking for a pitcher, a friend of her's brought up my name and now here I am in Italy.

"I don't even fully know how I got this opportunity.”

The St. Joseph native is first in appearances (138), complete games (83) and innings pitched (752.2). She ranks second in all-time strikeouts (815), third in wins (69) and fifth in shutouts (25).

Knapp cemented herself as one of the top pitchers to ever take the circle for CMU. 

Regardless of how she got it, the 5-foot-7 right-handed pitcher dreamed to keep her softball career alive — even if it meant going to a foreign country. Professional softball in Italy is different from that in the U.S.

Most players in Italy have full-time jobs and take classes at local universities while they compete. These players take advantage of the Italian Federation Baseball Softball League to be recognized by national teams.

In Italy, sports and school do not coincide like they do in the U.S. Since Knapp attended CMU from 2014-17, she is one of few team members who isn't in college.

For Knapp, the experience is something she has never seen before. 

“Playing in a different country is surreal," Knapp said. "It's incredible and so interesting to see how people and players can bond over a sport no matter the language barrier. It opens your eyes to new ways of thinking, living and socializing."

Knapp described arriving and living in Italy as a "culture shock." There are only a few players on her team that speak English, so they translate conversations for Knapp and her teammates. 

There are specific key words Knapp will hear that she uses as indicators, but otherwise she just tries to have all conversations translated.

Knapp's former head coach, Margo Jonker, said she had experience in softball in Europe. Jonker describes Knapp's pitching style as a perfect fit for European softball. 

“I knew with her confidence and ability to pitch she could be very successful in (Italy),” Jonker said. “It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to go by yourself to another country and be with a team where most of them don’t speak your language. I’m very proud of her.”

Knapp is currently in contention for the Italian Cup, which she compared to a preseason tournament in college. 

Because of certain league restrictions, Knapp is not allowed to pitch more than seven innings in a two-game series because she is a foreign player. 

Knapp has pitched in twice, totaling 14 innings without allowing a run. She's surrendered six hits while striking out 21 batters in Italy. 

“Players are quite similar,” Knapp said. “It sounds silly, but it's the same game we play no matter the country we play it in. Same concepts, same attitudes and same overall goals.”

Senior CMU catcher Maison Kalina said it’s no surprise that Knapp is succeeding in Italy. Kalina caught Knapp's pitches for the last three straight years. 

“(Knapp) has such a calm presence on the mound and you could always trust her to take care of business in the circle,” Kalina said. “She was always great here, so why not bring that over to Italy?”

Knapp will be in Italy until mid-July for the first part of the Thunders' season before it picks back up in August for the second portion. She won’t be able to make it back to the U.S. for any CMU games, but, she still keeps up with the team and watches games on her computer.

She could either go back to her two jobs in the U.S. — one as a recreational therapist and the other as pitching instructor at a softball facility — or attempt to continue her professional career. 

“Genuinely, I never thought I was good enough for an opportunity such as this so I'm still processing that I could possibly continue to play after this as well,” Knapp said. “I'm hoping that when opportunities come up the right decision will present itself.”

Meanwhile, Knapp wants to develop her pitching skills with a “bulldog” mentality while growing as a person off the field.

Even with all of the time she spent away from those family and friends, she said she is proud to represent CMU's softball program around the world.

“My overall goal in Italy is to grow and mature as an individual and athlete,” Knapp said. “I get a chance to travel around Europe while continuing to play a sport that I love."