Drayven Kowalski was in the middle of doing some leg squats at the gym when his cell phone rang. Some folks don’t like to interrupt their workout to answer a call, but Kowalski noticed the number was from Virginia, so he un-squatted, said hello, and the rest is history.
Shortly thereafter, Kowalski’s future was mapped out for the next four years, as he signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Longwood (Va.) University in the Big South Conference.
“I had my headphones on, and I look down and I’m like, ‘Who the heck is calling me?’” the Steinert High senior said. “I’d never seen that number before, and it was from Virginia, so I said ‘Lemme answer it.’ It was a good thing I did. We ended up talking for two hours straight.”
That led to a campus visit and despite the fact “it’s in the middle of nowhere,” Kowalski was impressed by the baseball and business programs Longwood has to offer.
With that decision taken care of, he will be able to enjoy his final year with Steinert as he and the Spartans get used to life under new coach Rick Freeman. Kowalski has not yet played for Hamilton Post 31, though he will this summer, but was coached by Freeman on the freshman team three years ago. Freeman, the varsity pitching coach last year, has taken over for Brian Giallella, who stepped down for personal reasons.
“In addition to his experience and talent, both of which should be catalysts for a successful season, Drayven is one of our captains,” Freeman said. “As a catcher, he is a natural leader, but he has taken that leadership to a new level. It has been very enjoyable to watch his growth over the past four years, not just as a player but as a fine young man.”
Freeman has inherited an outstanding defensive catcher trying to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his life. Kowalski hit just .203 last year in his first season of starting varsity.
Contrast that ninth grade, when he hit over .600 for the freshman team, and all the years on travel ball where he delivered lusty batting averages.
“I have no idea what happened,” Kowalski said. “I was trying to figure out so much stuff, I changed my swing so many times. That was my main focus over the past summer was batting. I finally got to the point where I feel confident at the plate again.”
Kowalski felt he may have been the victim of over-advice last season.
“The problem was I kept getting new things put in my mind, and I would keep changing something and never could stay consistent,” he said. “One game I’d be swinging worried about my top hand, then my legs would be out. Other times I’d drop my bat head, and I’d strike out. It was too much.”
The tighter Kowalski’s brain got, the more he pressed as he struck out a team-high 20 times. But the true indicator of Kowalski’s value is that despite his woes at the plate, he started all 27 games for Steinert. That’s how important a good defensive catcher is, and Kowalski has all the tools.
It is something Kowalski has been doing all his life. He started in Sunnybrae Little League as a pitcher but has a photo of himself wearing catcher’s equipment while wearing a regular fielder’s glove.
“That wasn’t easy, catching that way,” he said with a laugh.
Kowalski quickly joined to the Hamilton A’s before heading to Flemington to play at what started as Jack Cust Baseball but is now Diamond Nation. At age 12, they needed a catcher for one game so Kowalski got behind the plate. He stayed with it after moving on to Gallagher Baseball and the Arsenal, which plays tournaments around the country.
“I just put on the gear, and this time I stayed with it,” he said. “We went out and bought my own gear and a real catcher’s mitt. As a pitcher, you can say you have the most control over the game, but catching you lead the whole team and see everything from the opposite side. You’re the only one looking at the field the whole time, everyone else is looking at you. I’ve always had the ability to receive the ball very well, that’s probably my favorite part about it, just catching the ball.”
There was one slight problem, however. Kowalski had no real training to be a catcher, and he wasn’t going to get it in travel ball. Teaching fundamentals are secondary to just playing showcase games against talented competition. And while Kowalski notes that helped his hitting, he still had to learn the craft of catching.
Thus, his parents, Rich and Liera, drove him to Dave Weaver’s four-day catching clinic in New Hampshire. They would stay overnight while their son bettered himself with private training. When Weaver passed away, his son Jay took over.
“It was at some crappy little league field, but they just knew what they were talking about,” Kowalski said. “The son really expanded it. At the time, it was like a four-day thing—four days of hell. It was tough, but I learned so much from it.”
Kowalski also taught himself a few things. With a wiry, athletic frame he is not built like most catchers. So he began to set up in his crouch a bit different than other receivers.
“I started working my own things and mixed them in with what I was taught to see what would work better,” he said. “That’s how I started doing the splits and stuff. It gets me lower, and I can pop out from that even though you wouldn’t expect it.”
Asked if he takes his mom’s yoga classes to help with that, Kowalski chuckled and said, “I used to, but as I got older I stopped. I don’t have the patience. I can’t stay in one spot for that long for a certain amount of breaths.”
Aside from having the physical tools to be a good catcher, Kowalski also has the necessary mental toughness. When players struggle offensively like Kowalski did last year, they often take that on the field and mess up defensively as everything begins to snowball. That never happened.
One of the reasons Kowalski did not let it get to him, is because he just loves to catch.
“As soon as I would get back out on the field, I’d think ‘It’s time to get out there, time to grind,’” he said. I just kept looking past it.”
Kowalski says his biggest thrill defensively is not throwing out a baserunner, but getting a called third strike on a pitch that’s out of the zone that he makes look like it caught the plate.
“I know that sounds a little boring, but to me that’s the best part,” he said.
Kowalski also excels at dealing with his pitchers, whether it’s coddling them, kicking them in the butt or just telling them what they’re doing wrong. These are all things Kowalski has a grasp on, but continues to learn about. This year he will work with veteran pitchers Ryan Meszaros, Jake Muller and Dominic Maglione, along with several newcomers.
He will look forward to doing that in Virginia for the next four years, despite not being part of the hustle and bustle he loves.
“It’s kind of homey down there, and I love city life,” Kowalski said. “But this was just the next step to what I could do to better myself. I’m going to school and playing baseball. I saw it as the perfect fit for me.”