Prep Baseball: South's Kowalczyk to St. Andrews
By Mike London
LANDIS — Tyler Kowalczyk’s acceptance letter from St. Andrews Presbyterian College began with the surprising salutation: “Dear Taco.”
Kowalczyk, South Rowan’s senior center fielder, officially lists his nickname as the less original “Special K,” but he is “Taco” to his teammates, his opponents and even head coach Thad Chrismon.
“Because Taco is just a whole lot easier to say than Kowalczyk,” Chrismon said.
While some have theorized that “Taco” is shorthand for Kowalczyk’s first and last names, Kowalczyk explained that the nickname derives exclusively from his fondness for a certain Mexican dish.
“We were at a showcase tournament and everyone wanted to go to Wendy’s except (Carson shortstop) Gunnar Hogan’s father and me,” Kowalczyk explained. “The rest went to Wendy’s, but we went and got tacos and brought them back. After that, I was ‘Taco.’ It stuck. I guess it’s still sticking.”
Kowalczyks are most frequently found in Poland, but South has benefited from the arrival of one family of Special K’s in Landis.
“We moved here from Pennsylvania when I was 6 or 7,” Kowalczyk said. “My mother went to Penn State. I can remember Penn State football games were a really big deal.”
Baseball has always been Kowalczyk’s game, not football. That’s a good thing because he’s 5-foot-10 and there’s no excess weight on him.
“I might be 150 pounds in jeans and a jacket,” he said.
Kowalczyk overcomes what he lacks in size and power with his wheels and glove.
“I understand hitting is my weakest point,” he said. “In showcase ball, you see nothing but aces. When I get a hit, I’m just so happy.”
Chrismon figures Kowalczyk’s college playing time will depend on how much his bat develops. The rest of his game is college-ready.
“He has good baseball skills,” Chrismon said. “He can bunt. He can hit with two strikes. He has a very good arm and exceptional defensive ability. He’s got this unique burst of speed that helps him steal bases and get a good jump on flyballs.”
Kowalczyk is an excellent student (a weighted 4.0 GPA with his AP classes). His grades gave him options as far as taking his baseball career to the next level. He was contacted by several schools, but his choice came down to Conference Carolinas rivals St. Andrews and Limestone. He chose St. Andrews’ offer that combined baseball money with academic scholarships.
The Laurinburg-based Knights, struggling along at 8-31, can use some help.
Kowalczyk is a terrific athlete. He’s been a state indoor track qualifier twice in the 4x 800 relay, and he became a strong cross country runner when he took up that sport as a freshman.
“I was having back trouble,” Kowalczyk said. “My doctor told me distance running would exercise some different muscle groups. I was going to do the running on my own, but guys were bugging me to run with the cross country team. I’m glad I did it. I wasn’t bad.”
Actually, he was excellent. He finished second in the Rowan County Meet as a sophomore in the fall of 2008, but he didn’t run as a junior, electing to concentrate on baseball.
“You have to have that passion for running,” Kowalczyk said. “I didn’t have it because my passion is baseball. I did came back to cross country as a senior, but it was mostly to get in shape for baseball.”
Late in his sophomore season, Kowalczyk made his varsity baseball debut. He went 4-for-10 and made a favorable impression on Chrismon.
“He fit in, and his teammates loved him,” Chrismon said. “He’s always been able to find his role.”
His role as a junior was as the right fielder and No. 9 hitter, setting the table for stars Maverick Miles and Blake Houston. He batted .338 and had a torrid nine-game in which he batted .560. He made the all-county team.
“I enjoyed playing right field, especially at South where there’s so much room out there,” Kowalczyk said. “I like those diving catches.”
As a senior, Kowalczyk has shifted over to center and up to the leadoff spot. He hasn’t had one of his hot streaks yet, but he’s been steady. He’s batting .357 with nine steals.
“Taco doesn’t say much, but he works as hard as anyone,” Chrismon said. “I’ve never once had to tell him, ‘Pick it up. You need to go harder.’ ”
Chrismon and first-year St. Andrews coach Matt Boykin were neighbors growing up in Apex. Boykin was a strong recruiter for Appalachian State before taking the head job at St. Andrews, and Chrismon is convinced Boykin will get things turned around.
That “Dear Taco” letter might be the first step.