It was only the Colonials’ second day of the 2014 season. Trailing Kent State 3-0 in the top of the fifth of a Mizuno Invitational nightcap, a GW freshman approached the circle for her collegiate pitching debut.
Back in her hometown of Windermere, Fla., the right-hander had received All-Metro and All-Conference recognition as a pitcher. She was named Olympia High School’s 2013 Female Athlete of the Year after posting an impressive 1.96 ERA with 178 strikeouts while batting .404 in her final year there.
Paige Kovalsky gave up just one run on two hits in 2.2 innings pitched in that first appearance on the mound early last February, but also came face-to-face with a hardline drive beaming straight toward her.
“The hitter hit it back at my face area, so I blocked it with my hand, just a reaction thing, and it ended up breaking my thumb,” Kovalsky said. “I was out for about two months between just being in a brace and rehab.”
The injury would sideline the sophomore for the majority of her freshman year, during which she only pitched 25.2 innings and had 38 at bats. Kovalsky watched from the dugout as sophomore Meghan Rico and senior Courtney Martin struggled to find consistency as GW finished a lackluster 18-31-1 last season, unable to provide much-needed relief.
Following her recovery, she would close out the year with a 1-4 record and an ERA of 4.64. Kovalsky was even able to throw a complete game in a 7-4 loss to St. Louis on April 26, but still felt like she needed to do more.
“That was exciting for me … It was a good game, but I had only been pitching since my injury for a couple of weeks. It was good to be back, but I knew I could provide more for the team than what I did,” Kovalsky said.
Martin, who graduated last offseason, ranks second in all-time appearances for a GW pitcher and fourth with 20 wins and 279 strikeouts. Kovalsky said she and Martin were close, with Martin serving as a mentor on and off the field, helping her most with the mental side of the game.
And the mental toughness shows, as this season Kovalsky is arguably one of the best players on the team. By the end of February, she led GW pitchers and hitters alike on the stat sheet, boasting a team-best 2.76 ERA and 2-0 record in 25.1 innings pitched and was batting a team-high .400 with seven runs and 12 hits after 30 at bats.
“I haven’t really changed anything,” Kovalsky said. “I have the same mentality for both [pitching and hitting] … an attack mentality … I like to go after batters, and when I’m hitting, I like to jump on pitches quick.”
While Kovalsky’s play has dipped slightly in March, her teammates have been there to pick up the slack. Junior first baseman Carlee Gray now leads all Colonials at the plate with a .397 batting average and a team-high 29 hits.
On the mound, freshman Sarah Costlow has pitched a whopping nine complete games and achieved a 3.87 ERA and an 11-9 record through 105 innings pitched, while Kovalsky is a perfect 3-0 in her starts and still holds the team’s best ERA at 3.55. More importantly, the pitching duo recently guided GW to eight-straight wins in March, perhaps thanks to the pair’s close relationship.
“I talk about the game the most with Sarah,” Kovalsky said. “We kind of just bounce ideas off each other and talk about the mental side of the game, pitching wise, and just … how we can get better.”
On Feb. 23, Kovalsky earned Colonial of the Week honors and Costlow followed suit on March 17 when she was named Atlantic 10 Pitcher of the Week. Both players slowly seem to be emerging as young leaders on the team where upperclassmen make up less than half of the roster.
The eight-game tear left the Colonials with a 13-8 non-conference record, but GW has dropped three of its last four and is 0-2 in A-10 play thus far. With a three-game series against St. Bonaventure approaching this weekend, Kovalsky hopes her hard work will continue to motivate her team to find more consistency.
“I think I’m more of a lead-by-example person,” Kovalsky said. “I’m not the pump-everyone-up-before-a-game [type person]. I think by working hard, it spreads and it’s contagious.”