Veteran baseball coaches saw Chris Knott's potential before he did.
It took a trip to a national tournament in Jupiter, Fla., in fall 2009 for the Egg Harbor Township resident to finally see it himself.
Less than five years later, Knott is one of the top players in NCAA Division II as a senior outfielder for East Stroudsburg University, and a major-league draft prospect.
"I always loved the game," the 21-year-old said in a phone interview Monday. "But I never really knew what it took. (At the tournament in Florida), one of my coaches actually told me, 'You have talent. If you really put in the work' - he pretty much told me what I needed to do - 'then you could turn out to be something.' So I guess ever since I heard that, I really started believing in myself."
The tournament was a Perfect Game showcase event. Knott's coach with the Tri-State Arsenal travel team was Joe Barth Jr.
Barth has been taking his teams to the Perfect Game showcases since 2004. Previous teams included Millville's Mike Trout, who now stars for the Los Angeles Angels, and Lower Township's Matt Szczur, a prospect in the Chicago Cubs' organization. Barth said the showcase helps his players see what it takes to get to the level of players from traditional baseball hotbeds such as Florida and California.
Barth told Knott to spend more time in the weight room if he wanted to be as strong as the top players from around the country. He told him to improve his plate discipline. And he told him to spend more time on skills such as base-running and defense, which are more difficult to practice in the Northeast since indoor practices often focus on hitting in cages.
"I think you have to see it before you can be it," Barth said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I think before you're a (great) player, you've got to see potential big-leaguers your age. And a lot of times, you think they're Superman, but in reality they're just a little more polished.
"For Chris, I think the biggest thing he had to overcome was just the perception that, '(Good) players come from the warm-weather states, and I'm not good enough to play against them.' "
'Incredible raw ability'
John Kochmansky saw Knott's potential, too. The East Stroudsburg head coach recruited Knott even before his breakout senior season for Egg Harbor Township High School, when he hit .515 with 15 homers and 56 RBIs to earn Press Player of the Year honors. The previous season, he had hit just one homer.
"I saw a guy with just incredible raw ability," Kochmansky said in a phone interview Monday. "He's a five-tool guy. He ran very well. He was throwing at that time upper-80s (mph) from the outfield. He showed a lot of power."
Even when other colleges, including some in Division I, showed interest after his senior season, Knott stuck with the school in East Stroudsburg, Pa., just west of Warren County, N.J.
The decision has been beneficial for both parties. Knott has set school records for career RBIs (147), home runs (19), triples (16), doubles (45), extra-base hits (80) and total bases (342). With 208 hits, he is 16 short of tying that record. The Warriors won the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference title last year, their first since 1971, and they are currently 28-16 overall, 14-13 in the PSAC.
"I've said this to quite a few people: He is the best baseball player in the history of East Stroudsburg University baseball," Kochmansky said.
The key has been intense dedication. Knott arrives one hour early to practice every day so he can take extra swings. He also does extra weight training at night, in addition to the regular morning sessions.
"I hang out with my teammates and my girlfriend (Ashlyn Crook of Northfield) every day," Knott said. "That's about it. I feel like that almost is my social life. I enjoy going to work out. I enjoy getting the extra workout with my buddies. That's fun for me."
When Knott's father, Mitch, wanted to take his family on a cruise around Christmastime in 2012, the idea quickly was shot down.
"He couldn't go because he said, 'Christmas, that's like the most important time to start working out, because it's like a month before the season,'" Mitch Knott said. "And we ended up not going just for the fact that he wanted to work out."
The sacrifices have been worth it. The 6-foot, 210-pound Knott plans to work out for Tampa Bay Rays scouts in late May in Flemington, N.J. He and Kochmansky have been in contact with several other teams.
East Stroudsburg has had three players drafted by major-league teams in the past five years - in the 19th, 28th and 44th rounds. Kochmansky said Knott is "certainly a prospect."
The term "five-tool player" gets thrown around frequently, but Knott fits the definition as well as anyone.
He hits for average, ranking sixth in the PSAC at .396. He hits for power, leading the conference with his .664 slugging percentage and 44 RBIs. He runs the bases well, with a team-high 14 steals in 17 attempts as well as a team-leading four triples. He has not made an error this season in center field and has an arm (five assists) that should be good enough for him to play right field professionally, Kochmansky said.
"He gets such a great jump on balls," the head coach said. "He makes plays look easy that other center fielders may not even get to. And he always has the potential to bring everybody to their feet with that spectacular diving play."
As his college career winds down and he looks to the future, Knott says he's motivated in part by the success of the two players who won Press Player of the Year honors immediately before him: Trout (2008, '09) and Szczur ('07).
"I look up and say, if they can do it, why can't I do it?" he said.