YOUNGSTOWN – Struthers High School Athletics Director Nancy Knight enters a teleconference call. All of the other faces on the computer screen are male athletic directors, but she never sees herself as different from her colleagues.
Knight is one of a handful of female athletic directors at the nearly 40 high schools in Trumbull and Mahoning counties. Like most in her position, she checks in with officials, support staff and others to make sure everything is in order before an athletic event. That includes opening the front door for the Struthers Police officer who will provide security.
“Once they get to know me, they realize I’m just one of them,” Knight says. “I understand the trials and tribulations they go through. They understand I’m right in the mix with them. It’s a respect that’s earned.”
Knight is one of the many Mahoning Valley women in sports management at the high school, college and professional levels.
Another is Emily Wollet, who is already multitasking as she enters her office at Stambaugh Stadium at Youngstown State University. Wollet has a coffee in one hand and is using the other to talk on the phone.
The YSU associate athletic director and her staff oversee the university’s 19 athletic programs, making sure those in the Penguin community are compliant with the National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines.
Wollet has a thick NCAA manual that gives a distinct thud when she flops it on her desk. It’s even heavier now with 100 pages of COVID-19 regulations on top of the already intricate system of collegiate regulations.
She says it’s challenging for the school’s sports teams to stay in tune with what is permissible and what is not to remain compliant in the pandemic era.
Wollet and her staff must monitor and protect YSU’s integrity. The school’s compliance team usually meets with its coaches on a weekly basis. The goal is to build trust and understanding about that specific athletic program, and Wollet’s office is there to make sure the student-athlete remains academically eligible.
Sometimes she has to tell a Penguin athletic program it’s not following NCAA regulations.
Wollet’s master’s degree is from the counseling program at YSU. She’s not about confrontation, admitting she hasn’t had too many issues. When there is a disagreement, she harkens back to a mentor from an NCAA internship who told Wollet “Don’t ever let them see your emotion.”
“When I speak to you, even though I’m frustrated, I’m going to treat you with respect,” Wollet says. “I’m going to be professional.”
The background of Heather Sahli’s computer desktop has reminders of celebrities who visited Eastwood Field. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ assistant general manager of marketing remembers those special events, which featured everyone from soap opera stars to a former turnbuckle-tearing WWE wrestler.
A plethora of bobbleheads, ranging from former Scrapper and Cleveland Indian shortstop Francisco Lindor to YSU president Jim Tressel to Warren-born rocker Dave Grohl, adorn her top shelf – all reminders that the 2021 Scrappers season is nearing.
Her job is more than the fan giveaways and celebrities coming to Eastwood Field. It’s about opportunities, Sahli says.
The Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as Major League Baseball’s first female general manager on Nov. 13, 2020. Sahli says that moment was very impactful for a lot of women, showing they are not limited in their scope of job possibilities.
“Right then, it created that ‘I can do anything’-type attitude for a lot of people that didn’t think that before,” she says. “Whether you’re going to be a general manager of a Major League club or something else, you don’t have those limitations.”
Sahli advises those aspiring to follow in her footsteps to volunteer for clubs, stay active and build experiences in their high schools. During freshman and sophomore years of college, there are internship positions available – some with the Scrappers organization.
Getting experience with multiple teams before graduating college or getting your first full-time position is important, she says. “That’ll help build your network as you’re just navigating through all this and trying to find opportunities,” she said.
According to JobsInSports.com, the average starting yearly salary for sports management jobs is $35,000 to $42,000.
YSU’s Wollet didn’t realize her current job existed when she ran track at the university, but is happy that she embraced this opportunity. She says if girls are sociable and have a passion for sports, it could be “an amazing opportunity for them.” Shadowing their high school athletics director or other people in sports management can give them an idea of whether this field is right for them, she says.
“I think the more that they can visibly see that it exists and what this is, they might be interested,” Wollet says.
Knight remembers when she used to spring off the gymnastic apparatuses inside Struthers High School, when the Wildcats had a gymnastics team. She later divulged that knowledge to her athletes at Austintown Fitch High School, coaching gymnastics there for 15 years. Knight worked for then-Fitch athletic director Dick Kenney, who had a profound impact on her current career.
Online courses did not exist in the mid 2000s, when Knight went to Kent State University for her master’s degree in sports administration. She taught elementary education during the day and traveled to Kent at night for classes, which meant she had to give up coaching. Knight remained a teacher in the Austintown Local School system before leaving for Struthers.
“It was a way for me to stay with kids, but yet take it in another direction, which is sports,” she says.
Knight is one of a handful of women who have served or are currently serving as athletics directors in the Mahoning Valley.
Dennis Hynes, who was Lowellville High School’s athletics director, came over to Struthers as an elementary principal. He helped Knight adjust to the job and is someone to whom she still “bounces ideas off” to this day.
The highest-ranking female in intercollegiate athletics at Youngstown State University was Elaine Jacobs before she retired last summer.
Wollet, Jacobs’ protege, now holds that distinction.
A sprinter at Canfield High School and YSU, Wollet says she admires the relationship between student-athletes and athletics advisers. She wants to help students herself, leading her to pursue a master’s degree. She shadowed the athletics department, watching the cogs of the department in motion.
Jacobs began teaching Wollet her position at YSU and shared the passion for higher education and athletics. Jacobs remained Wollet’s mentor until she retired.
“Having a strong female role model honestly put me where I’m at,” Wollet says.
On the Job
Sahli couldn’t imagine working anywhere else but the Scrappers. Her main job is the marketing, advertising and promotion of the Mahoning Valley organization, but she also does work on sponsorships. It is her job to devise what’s heard during games and to coordinate the giveaways at the ballpark. Sahli also works on community relations.
“This job is amazing,” says Sahli, who is going into her 17th year with the organization, “just being able to develop career-wise and basically grow up here.”
Knight has seen many children grow up in her 28 years of education. She teaches sixth-grade study skills in between her athletics director duties. Knight is responsible for managing and supervising events, hiring staff, selling tickets, providing security at the various schools.
Things quickly changed for all athletics directors during the pandemic with fluid schedules and safety precautions implemented around the schools’ campuses to be adhered to by all parties involved in an athletic event.
Changes happen on a daily basis, even after Knight shares her weekly schedule with the staff and on the school’s athletic website.
“There are so many parts to it,” Knight says.
Pictured at top: Struthers High School Athletics Director Nancy Knight is preparing for a girls basketball game at the high school.