For love of the game
Playing softball makes Mesa's Kovac happy
When she was 8 years old, Makayla Kovac knew.
“I was watching the women’s College World Series,” said the freshman shortstop for the Colorado Mesa University softball team. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna play for UCLA.’ That doesn’t happen, but I wanted to be there at 8 years old, and it just continued.
“I loved it. I’m still watching the (Division I) conference games, streaming them on ESPN3. I can’t get enough of it.”
Then again, this is the same kid who begged her mom to let her play with her cousin’s T-ball team.
She was 3.
She played basketball for a couple of years and was a solid outside shooter and defender, and she tried tennis, but spring sports conflicted with her travel softball team, the Colorado Styxx.
Nope, it was always softball.
“I don’t know. I was just born to play softball,” she said with her ever-present smile. “That’s the only thing I know I can do right.”
Kovac leads the Mavericks (26-15-1) into the RMAC tournament this weekend. Mesa, the No. 2 seed, plays Fort Lewis (19-22) at 1 p.m. Friday. The eight-team, double-elimination tournament was moved back one day because of another spring snowstorm in Denver.
Top-seeded Colorado School of Mines is hosting the tournament, using its home field in Golden and Lakewood Park.
The tournament champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II regional playoffs. Mesa isn’t ranked in the region, so the Mavs must win the tournament to extend their season.
If Kovac is having a bad day, practice cheers her up. Game days are even better.
“I know exactly what I’m doing out here. Yeah, I still have a lot to learn about the game, but I know the game well enough that it’s just like the back of my hand,” Kovac said. “Sometimes it’s the only thing that makes me happy.”
Her summer coach, Joe Lembeck, said when she gets on the field, it’s almost impossible to get her off. This summer, Kovac, who he said is one of the best players he’s ever coached, will be his assistant coach.
“Her work ethic is great,” he said. “She has a very high pain tolerance. She’s worked really hard, and there have been a lot of games where she’s hurting and she will not come out.
“I’ve seen her sitting in the car or in the back of a pickup between tournament games and tears are running down her (face), and 15 minutes later she’s on the field.”
Kovac had the chance to play Division I softball. Not UCLA, mind you, but when she visited Grand Junction and checked out Colorado Mesa’s facilities, it felt right. It was just far enough away from Erie to be on her own, yet close enough so her family could see her play.
That comfort level has paid off on the field. When first-year head coach Candace Abrams decided to start Kovac at shortstop, she said she expected some ups and downs from the freshman.
“Well, 15 errors? That explains the downs,” Abrams said of Kovac’s .906 fielding percentage. “Overall, she’s done a great job, and she far exceeded a lot of our expectations, more than we could have imagined and expected of her. She took the role as a shortstop and did fantastic.”
Kovac, the All-RMAC first-team shortstop, understands the errors need to be cut down, but she has to keep playing the way she plays.
“I feel like I can’t be timid. I have to attack the ball,” she said. “In our first couple of games I was kind of timid, I can’t make an error, I can’t make an error. But then I’m like, ‘I’ve already made 15, what’s a new one? Just go for it.’ “
Lembeck said he watched the Mavs’ first game in Tucson, when nerves got to Kovac, who went 1 for 4 and made an error. After the game, he told her, “Well, here’s the good news. It can only get better.”
But, he said, when the game’s on the line, he wants the ball hit to the shortstop.
And if the Mavs need a run in the bottom of the seventh, Kovac wants to be at the plate. None of the Mavericks fear that situation, one reason for their success this spring.
“Oh, yeah,” Kovac said. “Everybody wants it. ‘Let me, I want that win, I want to be the hero, I want that RBI.’ “
Kovac doesn’t look at the gaudy numbers she’s putting up this season, shrugging her shoulders and giggling at her success.
“I’ve just tried to have as much fun as possible with it,” she said. “I just get up to bat ... I can’t get nervous, because then you’re gonna blow it. I just try to get up there and find a good pitch and try to see how far I can hit it.”
She credits the competition the Styxx played with preparing her for college softball. She won three state championships at Erie High School, but she didn’t face top-notch pitching like she did in the summer.
“I remember a pitcher throwing like 73 (mph),” she said, her eyes widening at the memory. “I was still one of the best hitters on the team, and I’m like, ‘Coach, I’m just trying to touch it. That’s all I’m trying to do right now.’ “
Junior Jessica Severinsen hits fourth in the lineup, right behind Kovac, which gives the freshman good pitches to see — and hit.
The two power hitters jab at each other in practice, seeing who can hit it farther.
“Sometimes we’re like, ‘I just hit it over the scoreboard, your turn,’ ” said Kovac, who has 13 home runs this season, one behind Severinsen, who leads the RMAC.
Abrams and Lembeck agree the test for Kovac will come next spring, when she’s no longer a secret.
So, what can she do for an encore?
“I know,” Kovac said, laughing again. “How much can I give? I’m gonna do my best, pitch by pitch, play by play ... and hit it as hard as I can.”