SALEM, Va. –- Following last year’s NCAA Division II Softball Championships, Kutztown shortstop Brianna Knipe took a good look at her strengths as a player.

Atop her list of abilities was her success as a defensive player. Knipe loves to be out on the field and her team benefits from her abilities when she’s on the field.

“It’s always been my favorite aspect of the game,” she said. “I love defense. I love diving for balls.”

But defense is only part of the deal. Offensively, Knipe felt like she was lacking.

The numbers were not that bad. She improved in almost every offensive statistic between 2011 and 2012. Knipe hit a career-best .314 with five home runs and 40 RBIs – all career records. But she also felt like she could do more.

“I needed to work on it,” she said.

That is exactly what happened. During the off season, Knipe became a permanent workout partner of Colleen Smith, the Kutztown first baseman who transferred to Kutztown from Division I Hofstra. Although Smith sat out her first season at Kutztown, everyone on the team knew she could hit.

Smith got Knipe to change her approach to hitting the ball. A few slight adjustments led to a quicker bat swing and the ability to recognize good pitches.

“I’m even drawing more walks now because I don’t swing at as many bad pitches,” she said.

By the time the postseason came, Knipe was nearly unstoppable.

Her play as both a shortstop and a hitter led to Knipe being named player of the year for her division of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. She capped off the conference tournament by hitting a game-winning three-run home run in the conference tournament.

At the 2013 NCAA tournament, where the Golden Bears will face Central Oklahoma in Monday’s title game, Knipe was credited with the RBI on the lone run in Kutztown’s 1-0 win against Humboldt State in the second round. She has also scored twice and has one other RBI.

Kutztown coach Judy Lawes said watching Knipe improve from one season to the next has been a big influence on her teammates. The coach believes hard work can be contagious.

“All four years, she’s been a terrific shortstop,” Knipe said. “She just loves defense. She thrives on that. She turned a double play [Sunday] when we struggling a little bit. She’s like a coach on the field and will be real hard to replace.”

The Golden Bears ended up one win away from reaching the 2012 national championship game. Knipe said that squad was very talented, but she added that the makeup of this year’s team has made it unique.

“We have heart, and we’re playing as a team,” she said. “We have a team here that is 1 through 9 in the lineup, you can expect the best and the game-winning hit out of anybody. … It comes from everyone, and that’s the biggest difference this year.”

Knipe is studying to become a secondary math teacher, and after Monday’s game, she will spend the next year finishing up her studies for that job. Although she’ll be student-teaching some of the time, she hopes to be able to help out her former teammates when she can. For now, she is going to focus on how this season is going to end.

“There’s nothing better than this,” Knipe said. “Just being here again is a great way to end the season. A couple of months ago [when the team was fighting just to get a spot in its conference tournament], we wouldn’t have thought we’re going to get back, but we did.”