OMAHA, Neb — After two years Jackson Kowar knows that he belongs in Orange and Blue but in June of 2015 Kowar’s world was turned upside down. If not for one decision Kowar would have been watching the game at home tonight and who knows if the Florida Gators would have been on the screen.
“It’s crazy how stuff works out. I was pretty much set, my whole life since my sophomore year in high school was set,” Kowar told Gator Country after the game. “I was going to go play for Clemson and Coach (Jack) Leggett. He’s a hall of fame coach, an unbelievable guy.”
Kowar had been committed to Clemson since his sophomore year of high school. He dreamed of wearing purple and orange rather than orange and blue. A disappointing season in Clemson led to the surprising firing of Jack Leggett after 22 years. Leggett gave a young Kevin O’Sullivan a job in 1999 and was a mentor to the Gators’ manager.
With Leggett getting let go just months before Kowar was set to enroll at Clemson Kowar and his family didn’t know what to do. He was a highly sought after prospect, there was the potential to sign and go pro out of school. When he wasn’t selected until the 40th round that option was void.
Florida’s recruiting class was decimated that year. They lost Kyle Tucker, Thomas Szapucki, Jacob Woodford and Michael Zimmerman, all big arms that would have played in Gainesville. That left a spot for Kowar but the lanky right-hander with a mid 90s fastball didn’t know anything about O’Sullivan or Gainesville.
He didn’t even know if he had any other choice but to go to Clemson and play for a brand new coach he had never met.
“I had already signed and I didn’t know if I was going to get released,” Kowar said. “I was really set on playing for Coach Leggett. I loved his style. I loved the pitching coach. They were awesome. I talked to them and told them I didn’t want to go to Clemson without them there. They recommended Sully. They didn’t lead me wrong.”
Kowar did get a release from the Tigers and made the decision to enroll at Florida. He was late; he didn’t join the group until the fall semester.
Kowar’s wild ride wasn’t over. A condition he developed in high school caused his lung to collapse midway through his freshman year. He was hospitalized and missed the rest of the season. He was relegated to watching Florida go 0-2 in Omaha.
“It was pretty devastating,” he said.
Kowar put on weight in the offseason and came back better in 2017. He came to Omaha this year not just a midweek starter or a role player but a 12-0 Sunday starter and major contributor on a team that was making its third trip back to Omaha.
Flash forward to Tuesday night. Kowar is coming out of the bullpen for the first time this season. He doesn’t remember the last time he came into a closing situation, “maybe my sophomore year of high school,” he guesses.
Kowar came into the game with LSU runners on the corners, Florida clinging to a 2-1 lead and only one out. He was the beneficiary of a great play from JJ Schwarz, back handing a ball and firing it home to get Kramer Robertson and save the 2-1 lead. Kowar got out of the inning and went back to the mound in the ninth with Florida now leading 6-1. When Beau Jordan hit a hopper to deacon Liput Kowar just threw his hands up in the air and prepared himself for what was to come.
“I was on the bottom of the dog pile,” he said with a smile. “I had a couple dogpiles in high school so I knew the deal. I went flat, dead flat. It was a little heavier tonight than I remember in high school. I tried to hold it off but it overtook me.”
It’s been quite a ride for Kowar. Who knows where Florida would be if Jack Leggett was still coaching at Clemson. Kowar would be a Tiger. Instead he spent Tuesday night on the mound in Omaha getting the final out for the Florida Gators’ first National Championship, beating a different Tiger.
“My life changed just like that,” he said. “I’m just thankful for all the people that supported me coming to Florida. It was the best decision of my life.”