Florida will start Jackson Kowar, who normally gets the Sunday start during the SEC schedule, tonight against Marist in the opener of the Gainesville Regiional at McKethan Stadium. [AP]

By Kevin Brockway
Staff writer

Hard-throwing sophomore righty Jackson Kowar is relishing his opportunity to start Florida’s regional opener tonight against Marist at McKethan Stadium.

But for Kowar, it also will serve as a reminder of what he’s overcome to get to this point.

At this time last year, Kowar was sidelined after suffering a collapsed lung midway through his freshman season.

“I was just kind of a cheerleader back then, felt a little bit out of the loop, a little helpless,” Kowar said. “This year I’m excited to be out there and contribute to hopefully a couple of wins, and on the way back to Omaha.”

Kowar had also suffered a collapsed right lung before his junior year of high school. At that time, thoracic specialists diagnosed Kowar with pneumothorax, a common condition for tall, thin teens who undergo growth spurts. Kowar is 6-foot-5, 180 pounds. The condition recurred in Kowar’s left lung during a UF series last year at South Carolina in April.

“Your number one concern is always, when you have kids, is their health,” Kowar’s father, Frank, said. “It was just a unique thing that my wife and I didn’t know much about. Usually, you are normally used to your kids breaking bones and getting stitches and things of that nature, but it’s pretty uncommon to have someone who is in their mid-teens have a lung collapse.

“I think initially it was very scary and a lot of uncertainty, but as you learn more about it, you talk to the doctors, you gain more confidence that there will be a full recovery, there’s no long-term implications.”

Still, Florida took a cautious approach to Kowar’s recovery last season. Kowar traveled with the Gators to the College World Series last year and lobbied to pitch, but was held out of action.

“The doctors did an unbelievable job and they were able to tell me exactly what was happening and they were very articulate, which was nice and I knew kind of exactly what to expect,” Kowar said. “At the same time, there was nothing fun about going through that. Glad I got it behind me, got it all taken care of so I don’t have to worry about it in the future.”

The trip to Omaha fueled Kowar’s drive to return to the College World Series this season. As a Sunday starter this season, Kowar has posted an 11-0 record, with a 3.74 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 91.1 innings pitched. That gave Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan confidence to start Kowar in tonight’s regional opener.

“He’s probably the best Sunday starter in the country and he’s got a great arm and he’s had a great year for us,” O’Sullivan said. “I think he deserved the right to go out there and give us a good shot on Friday night.”

Of late, O’Sullivan has challenged Kowar to work deeper into games. Kowar pitched 6.1 innings in UF’s SEC title clinching win against Kentucky and seven innings in UF’s SEC Tournament win over Mississippi State last week.

“We had a talk probably about six weeks ago and I told him I’m going to give you some more rope and get you through the seventh inning and I think the last few outings he’s done that,” O’Sullivan said. “And I think it’s been a learning experience for him and it’s been a learning experience for me. He knows I have a ton of confidence in him.”

Kowar said the biggest difference between his freshman and sophomore season has been his ability to mix pitches. He changed the grip on the slider to teammate Alex Faedo’s grip. Kowar’s fastball still clocks in on the radar gun at 95-97 miles per hour, but he’s learned to locate to set up hitters.

“A lot of the times when I was younger it was just easy to rear back and try to throw your way out of things,” Kowar said. “That’s not how it works in the SEC. You’re going to be able to have to keep making quality pitches. You are not going to be able to blow it by anybody, with not locating fastballs. You’ve got to be able to learn to make pitches and not just throw when you are in bigger situations and that has helped me kind of wiggle out of some tough jams this year.”

Florida junior catcher Mike Rivera said Kowar also has done a better job maintaining his composure.

“Last year he kind of got a little rattled at times and now he understands there’s a lot more game when you are a starter, when you are pitching, especially on the weekends,” Rivera said. “You are going to have to go a lot deeper in games.”

Kowar’s parents, Frank and Debbie, will make the trip down from Charlotte, N.C., to watch their son’s regional starting debut.

“He’s had a couple of obstacles he’s had to overcome, but our family, we have a culture of we don’t make excuses and whatever life presents itself there’s going to be challenges along the way, and you take them head on and you kind of move forward,” Frank Kowar said. “I think having that mentality has probably helped him.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.


2. USF

Mascot: Bulls

City Located: Tampa

Conference: American Athletic

Overall Record: 41-17

How Qualified: At-large berth.

Head Coach: Mark Kingston (272-178-1, 8 seasons)

Players to Watch: Kevin Merrell, SS, .386, 6 HR, 35 RBIs, 18 SB; Joe Genord, 1B, .261, 9 HR, 37 RBIs; Shane McClanahan, lhp, 4-2, 3.28 ERA

Fast Fact: USF’s 41 wins are a 17-game improvement from last season’s injury-filled, 24-33 campaign.

3. Bethune-Cookman

Mascot: Wildcats

City Located: Daytona Beach

Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic

Overall Record: 33-23

How Qualified: Won Conference Tournament

Head Coach: Jason Beverlin (176-175, 7 seasons)

Players to Watch: Adonis Lao, OF/P, .367 0 HR, 29 RBIs; Danny Rodriguez, 1B, .343, 11 HR, 45 RBIs; Anthony Maldonado,rhp, 8-3, 2.78 ERA.

Fast Fact: Bethune-Cookman will be making its 16th NCAA Regional appearance in school history.

4. Marist

City Located: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic

Overall Record: 32-21

How Qualified: Won Conference Tournament

Head Coach: Chris Tracz, (212-195-2, 8 seasons)

Players to Watch: Tyler Kapuscinski, 1B, .331, 1 HR, 15 RBIs; Frankie Gregoire, OF, .306, 9 HR, 41 RBIs; Sean Keenan RHP, 6-0, 2.78 ERA

Fast Fact: Marist is making its first NCAA Regional appearance since 2009.

— Kevin Brockway