NORMAN – Oklahoma’s Shay Knighten admits that she’s not one who seeks out personal awards and accolades. That must’ve made the 2017 season a little uncomfortable for her because she was the Most Outstanding Player at the Women’s College World Series, a second-team All-American and the Big 12 Player of the Year, to name a few.
On June 21, just over two weeks after the Sooners won their second straight national championship and third in the last five years, one more significant accolade rolled in as it was announced that Knighten was nominated for an ESPY for Best Championship Performance against the likes of Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots to a comeback win in the Super Bowl, Kevin Durant, who helped the Golden State Warriors to an NBA title and Deshaun Watson, who quarterbacked Clemson to the national championship.
Knighten said she found out when she got sent a screen grab of the announcement email from director of operations Jackie Livingston. After that, Knighten said her phone started “blowing up” from friends and family who apparently knew before she did.
“It meant a lot,” she said about being nominated. “When it was finally announced on Twitter and social media that I was nominated, I got a lot of little girls and their parents on Twitter and Instagram just saying thank you for representing softball.
“It’s cool because I’m not one for the big accolades; I just like to play. I’d rather give grace to God and my coaches and teammates and everyone else because without them I wouldn’t be able to do it. So it was cool to get that feedback because by me just being nominated, not even having to win an award, it was huge and impacted a lot of people.”
"I’m not one for the big accolades; I just like to play. I’d rather give grace to God and my coaches and teammates and everyone else because without them I wouldn’t be able to do it."
-- Shay Knighten
At the WCWS, Knighten hit .350 (7-20) with four runs scored, two doubles, a home run and six runs batted in as the Sooners swept top-seeded Florida. The Buena Park, Calif., native had clutch hits in each of the Sooners' wins over the Gators.
In game one, Knighten was the hero as she broke a 4-4 tie in the top of the 17th inning with a towering three-run home run to left field. It was her 11th of the season and the third WCWS home run of her young career. In game two, the Sooners found themselves trailing Florida 3-2 in the bottom of the second when Knighten stepped in with the bases loaded and two outs. On the first pitch of the at-bat, Knighten smashed a bases-clearing double to right center, giving OU a lead it would not relinquish.
The ESPYs, hosted by Peyton Manning, were held on July 12 at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
“It’s funny because it didn’t really sink in that I got nominated until the day before,” Knighten said. “Not even when I was getting my dress or anything, not until the day before the actual ESPYs, then it was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually nominated for an ESPY.’”
Luckily for Knighten, she knew people who had experience in attending the awards. In 2013, the Sooners were nominated for Best Team, allowing head coach Patty Gasso to attend along with Lauren Chamberlain and Keilani Ricketts, who was also nominated for Best Female College Athlete. Two years later, Chamberlain made a return trip after being nominated for Best Record Breaking Performance after setting the NCAA’s career home run record.
“I definitely asked Lauren (for advice),” Knighten said. “She first congratulated me on getting the nomination and then I asked her just questions about she felt and how she went about doing makeup and hair and stuff like that. And then I talked to Coach Gasso maybe a day or two after the ESPYs. We just talked about how cool it was and that was an experience of a lifetime that not many people get to have.”
A native of Buena Park, Calif., Knighten lives about 45 minutes south of Los Angeles. Living in such close proximity, it allowed her to go about her normal routine, such as seeing her regular hairdresser, until the night before the ESPYs, when she was invited to stay in the same hotel as the other nominees.
She got her dress about a week before the awards, though she admits she had been looking prior to that.
“I think I went to two different malls and finally found one,” she recalled. “My mom saw the dress first and I thought it was cute. I tried it on and was like ‘Yea, this is it.” We went the next day to get shoes. I just liked them and they happened to be the same exact color as my dress, which was perfect.”
Given three additional tickets, Knighten chose to bring her brother and her parents with her.
“They’ve been there for me the whole time, and they’re always going to be my number one supporters,” she said. “Both of my sisters wanted to come but they were both busy so I just thought it was fitting to have my family with me.”
The day of the awards, Knighten and her brother, Marquis, ordered room service for breakfast because they had never done that before and wanted to try it. They then spent the rest of the day relaxing and getting ready until heading to the red carpet around 3:30 p.m. PT.
“It was really cool and crazy because I’d only seen it on TV before,” Knighten said of the red carpet experience. “It was weird because now I was actually the one on the red carpet and having my picture taken and doing interviews. Being there with my family, it was a really cool experience.”
After entering the theater and enjoying some food and beverage, Knighten and her family took their seats with her and her dad sitting in the third or fourth row from the front, while her mom and brother sat near the rear.
“I was sitting right behind Deshaun Watson and right in front of him was Jarrius Robertson (winner of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award) and his family,” Knighten said. “And right across (the aisle) from me was Snoop Dogg. It was really cool.”
Seated right next to Knighten was another familiar face: Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill, who won the ESPY for Best Female College Athlete.
“We talked softball and just being at the ESPYs,” Knighten said. “Not many softball players get the opportunity to be there, so we talked about the World Series and how cool it was to play each other because they were huge games.”
The show started at 5 p.m. local time, but Knighten’s award didn’t come up until about 6:45. She had been enjoying the show to that point, noting how funny Manning was as host and how much she enjoyed seeing the reactions of the winners. But when it came time for her award, her feelings changed.
"It was just a cool experience to even be in the same category as Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady and Kevin Durant."
-- Shay Knighten
“I got a little nervous because I thought I might win so my heart started pounding and I was getting nervous and anxious,” she explained. “I looked at my dad and was like ‘Dad, I’m getting nervous,’ but he told me not to be nervous. It was fun to share that with my dad and realize I was up for an ESPY with these great players.”
The award ultimately went to Durant but that didn’t diminish the evening for Knighten. Afterward, she attended an after party with her family. She said that her phone died during the party so she wasn’t able to take pictures, though throughout the night she was able to meet Watson and Durant and also see Golden State guard Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha. Knighten was also able to take solace in the fact that her brother was able to meet some of his favorite athletes and get pictures.
“It was fun,” Knighten said of the whole experience. “It was something that you don’t really understand until you get there because not many people can say they’ve been to the ESPYs, especially in college. It was just a cool experience to even be in the same category as Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady and Kevin Durant. Those are huge people and it was just really cool to be there in that atmosphere.”