Justin Kniffen has produced two state runner-up teams at Harleton and won more than 300 games during his 13 years there.
He now undertakes his biggest test - turning around Robert E. Lee softball.
“A lot of my coaching friends think I am crazy,” Kniffen said about his new challenge with the Lady Raiders. “I always like being told that something can’t be done. I am going to stay, do it right and compete. The (kids) need to be assured that this isn’t a one and done for me. My family, the administration and everyone is behind it to make it a winner.”
Kniffen takes over an REL softball team that 6-23 last year and 2-12 in District 11-6A play. Those two league victories came against fellow Tyler ISD school, John Tyler, which went winless in district.
Tyler ISD athletic director Greg Priest said he is “committed to this softball deal and really get this turned around.”
Priest added hiring Kniffen at Lee is the first step in doing that.
Interim coach Suzanne Braly took her Van softball teams to state twice. She was asked by Priest to step in during the season and. Priest said Braly “would’ve have liked to remain in the job” but family obligations prompted her to decline, which created this opening.
Family opportunity is also what prompted Kniffen to leave Harleton after building it into a perennial power. His wife, Sarah, works in Tyler and has commuted from their house in Longview to the Rose City for 13 years.
“My wife is excited (for me) and she no longer has to make that drive,” said Kniffen, with the couple having three kids: Mallory (11), Brady (8) and Brock (3).
“It’s an opportunity to turn something around. We did that here (at Harleton). It’s a challenge sure, but the administration is determined to turn it around. To turn it into something Lee and city of Tyler can be proud of.”
Harleton hadn’t ventured past the bi-district round of the playoffs prior to Kniffen’s arrival. He led Harleton to the state tournament in 2010 and again in 2014, 15 and 16 while compiling a 339-18 record overall in his time there.
Harleton was stopped in the state semifinals in 2010 and 2016. The Lady Wildcats reached the state championship game in 2014 and 2015.
According to a report in the Longview News-Journal, during Kniffen’s three-year run of state tournament trips, Harleton compiled a 96-16 record.
“His résumé speaks for itself, being to two state championships,” Priest said. “I talked to a lot of people and a lot of them have tried to pull him out of (Harleton) and were unsuccessful.”
Lee’s new softball coach said Priest sold him on vision of the future. The recent TISD bond passing also played a part because that bond features a plan to upgrade the softball facilities at Lee and create a field on campus.
There is currently not a full softball field on campus to practice on. It is basically a backstop with a home plate and base paths. The Lady Raiders play their home games at Faulkner Park.
“It was an adjustment seeing that (the practice field),” Kniffen admits. “I know the facilities are going to improve and I did not realize the level that they were.”
Kniffen said while the new softball field and facilities are being built, he wants his players to embrace practicing at the current spot; to use is a badge of honor in representing Lee in competition.
“I want them to know that it doesn’t matter (where we practice). It is what it is right now and there is a better day coming as far as facilities and playing surfaces,” Kniffen said. “I want them to take pride in it, not matter where they are. I don’t want any excuses (because of practice field) on why we don’t play well.”
The Lady Raiders reached the playoffs on 2015, but have only one postseason victory since 1990 - it came in 2010 in a game which REL was no-hit, but still won.
Kniffen said he has already reached out to Anthony Springer, director of the Sneaky Cleats competitive youth softball teams.
“I am willing to work with him and get our girls involved in that. It’s a pride issue. We need to get the message out now that if you work your way up through the feeder system, there is a final destination for them.”
Kniffen wants that “final destination” to be the Lady Raiders.
Raider Rap: Harleton went 20-12 this past season in Class 3A and reached the area round of the playoffs.