It doesn't take long to discover that Brendan Knoll is a special athlete.
During his standout career at Kasson-Mantorville, Knoll would spend the fall dominating the gridiron. In the winter, he'd go tear the rim off in basketball. And then in the spring, he'd go out on the diamond and lead the KoMets on the mound while supplying them with a middle-of-the-order bat with huge power. Plus, if he got on base, he was a threat to steal with his terrific speed.
Knoll could do it all. He's lucky in that regard.
After he graduated from K-M in 2017, high major programs weren't beating down his door. Knoll ended up at Century College in White Bear Lake.
Junior college baseball isn't for everybody. The long bus rides and low fanfare games usually weed out the faint of heart.
Knoll would get $7.50 to eat after games on the road. That meant at McDonald's, he could get some chicken nuggets, a small fries and a small drink. If he got lucky, maybe he could snag an Oreo McFlurry or a large fries.
"It’s the best, worst years of your life," Knoll said.
Knoll knew what he was getting into when he decided to go the junior college route. He knew it wasn't going to be easy, but he's not wired to just give up and quit.
See, it's all been part of his plan. He led the Wood Ducks to the NJCAA World Series in 2019. He was a second-team All-American with a 9-2 record and a sparkling 2.35 ERA.
That helped him land a spot at Minnesota State, Mankato. He pitched five innings for the Mavericks in 2020 before the season got canceled due to COVID.
Knoll knew he had to do something different if he really wanted to make a big-time impact in the NSIC.
GETTING TO WORK
Knoll has always thrown pretty hard, but he wanted to ramp it up a level. Thanks to YouTube and Twitter, there's never been more rock-solid information out there for pitchers. He bought some Driveline PlyoCare Balls and started to implement them into his offseason workouts. These squishy, weighted balls are the new rage in pitching. They help pitchers keep their mechanics sound while improving arm strength.
"I do it before we play catch," Knoll said. "It takes me like 10 minutes. It’s a warm-up before your real warm-up. It makes you feel good because you pick up a baseball and the ball is super light and it comes out of your hand super well."
He'd also watch plenty of Rob Friedman's content on Twitter. Friedman (aka Pitching Ninja) has skyrocketed in popularity and is one of the top baseball Twitter accounts.
Pitching Ninja highlights some of baseball's best pitches, and throughout the offseason, Friedman was able to lock down interviews with some of the game's best pitchers. The best aces were showing off their new pitch grips or the mentality that they try to have on the mound, and Knoll was soaking it all up.
"If you’re a young kid who pitches, follow Pitching Ninja," Knoll said. "His interviews and the videos are awesome."
All that work and self-taught training throughout the offseason has paid off in huge ways for Knoll. At the beginning of the Mavericks' season, Knoll was told he'd be starting in the bullpen. But he only allowed one run in his first 6 1/3 innings of work and they moved him to the rotation.
In his first collegiate start, Knoll picked up the win after not allowing an earned run in five innings of work. He pitched seven innings of four-hit ball and didn't allow a run in his second outing against Southwest Minnesota State. In his first 18 innings of starting, he didn't allow an earned run.
So, he wasn't ever going back to the bullpen.
On May 7, he pitched a complete game against Winona State and allowed just five hits and one unearned run while striking out eight.
In the NSIC conference tournament championship game, Knoll (who used to throw in the mid-80s) touched 93 mph on the radar gun. He was sitting between 89 and 91 mph all game long.
Minnesota State, Mankato won the NSIC conference title and they're a few wins away from qualifying for the Division II World Series. Knoll is 8-1 with a 2.48 ERA. He was named second-team All-NSIC.
Going to Junior College might have been incredibly hard at the moment, but it turned out to be the right decision. And all of Knoll's hard work throughout the pandemic certainly has paid off.
"Obviously, no one expects to go 8-1 with a sub-2.50 ERA, but I’m not super surprised because of the work that I put in and the time and effort I put in working on my craft," Knoll said. "It helped that the offense was putting up five or six runs every time I've pitched, so I could pound the zone and I knew that if I got a ground ball, the defense is going to make the play. You don’t have the stress of trying to generate a swing and miss every time."
FINDING THE HONKERS
Knoll always wanted to pitch in the Northwoods League and pitching for the Rochester Honkers would've made the most sense. He could live at home, just 20 minutes away from Mayo Field. Plus his parents, Phil and Deanna Knoll, could easily make it to every game.
It was a good idea in theory, but Knoll didn't think it would actually happen. In fact, he was planning to go play for the Willmar Stingers this summer.
Until Paul Weidner got the Honkers manager job in February. Weidner went to Randolph High School with Minnesota State, Mankato assistant P.J. McIntee. When McIntee found out the news that Weidner had landed the gig, he called up Knoll with glee.
"He calls me and goes, ‘Dude my guy got the job with the Honkers. You’re going there. We’re going to get you the contract and get it all set up,'" Knoll said. "I didn’t believe him at first. But then a couple days later, Paul called me and got the contract. It all happened all of the sudden. I'm fired up and excited."
Weidner added: "When (McIntee) told me about Knoll, I was like, ‘Yeah that’s someone we have to have.' He’s a terrific athlete. He’s a great kid. A great competitor. And he’s been really good for a really good Mankato team."
NOT DONE YET
A trip to the Division II World Series could be right around the corner for Knoll. Baseball is such a tight-knit community so playing in the Northwoods League for the Honkers this summer could go a long way for Knoll's professional baseball career as well.
Knoll thinks back to the days where he was given a $7.50 allotment to eat after games and laughs. But it's all been part of the plan. He's been a terrific athlete from the moment he stepped foot in Kasson-Mantorville's High School. That didn't change at Century College or Minnesota State, Mankato, or when he puts on the Honkers jersey this summer.
But the work ethic has changed. He learned to embrace the tough times. He learned to be coachable and also to teach himself and find good information.
Now, he's got a chance to make his baseball career last a little longer than anyone could've imagined.
"It makes me really appreciate it even more," Knoll said. "Nothing was handed to me. Everything I got in my baseball career has been earned. I worked so hard for it. it makes it just so much sweeter because I put so much into it and good things have happened for me and my team."