March 4, 2013
Koutsoumbaris Is Not Afraid
As a youngster, Polk State College softball player Stephanie Koutsoumbaris, 18, hated softball and catching.
Those who know her background and personality see some irony in how things have turned out for her. Not only is she thriving as the Eagles' starting catcher. She was also recently named FCSAA Player of the Week.
Twice she almost gave up the game. She was afraid of the ball, and she had other aspirations.
She loves fashion, and her acrylic nails are not what you'd expect to see on the athlete in the grittiest position on the field. However, the flair at the ends of her fingers is a hint as to what makes her tick.
"I totally hated softball," Koutsoumbaris said. "I was a ballerina."
Playing second base on concrete fields while growing up in New York, Koutsoumbaris shied away from the ball.
"I thought I was going to get nailed," she said.
When Koutsoumbaris was 9, the family moved to Florida. Upon the move, Koutsoumbaris' mother, Catherine, a former softball player, told her daughter there were no dancing schools in the area.
"But there's this thing called Little League," Koutsoumbaris said her mother told her.
The clay softball fields were a bit of a surprise, but the transplanted youngster showed early promise at second base.
Within a year, she was playing with the Clearwater Bandits, a competitive club team. Her talent, however, remained in tension with her fears.
"I was too scared of the ball," she recalls.
Second base wasn't a fit, so she tried catching, where she could wear shin guards, a chest protector and a mask.
"It wouldn't hurt as bad," she said.
It took her a while to adjust to catching.
"At first I hated it," she said.
The competitive Koutsoumbaris couldn't stop playing though.
"You hate it. Getting hit by the ball sucks, but I like to be in the game and being in on every single pitch," she said.
"Hate" gave way to what she acknowledges as "a love-hate relationship."
She became known as a kid who could grind out long innings and multiple games in the hot, dusty conditions behind home plate – and then deliver on the offensive side as a clutch hitter.
She earned praise in 18-and under divisions with the Clearwater Bandits, Clearwater Threshers, Tampa Mustangs and Team Florida, and a wall in her Palm Harbor living room is covered with softball trophies.
A favorite one features a plaque of home plate, different from those her teammates received for the same tournament. A coach, she says, gave it to her for playing every game in an exhausting tournament.
"That was kind of cool," she says. "Catchers don't get a lot of attention. It's more the pitchers. We just get yelled at if we do something wrong."
Koutsoumbaris has done little wrong in the eyes of Polk State College coach Jeff Ellis.
"I'm not surprised she won the FCSAA award," Ellis said. "I knew when I watched her and recruited her that she was a special talent. Nothing she does on the field surprises me."
However, Koutsoumbaris surprised herself when she struck out in her first at-bat for Polk.
"Oh my God, this is not good," she said to herself. "This season is going to be awful."
The failure to hit the ball got under her skin.
"That was motivation," she said.
So she went back to what three coaches taught her when she was with the Tampa Mustangs.
"They slowed the game down for me," she said. "It was more of them breaking the swing down."
She also applied what she has learned as a defensive standout to her offensive role. Koutsoumbaris has been calling pitches for her pitchers since she was 14, and she brings that
game-calling knowledge with her to the batting box.
"I look at my past games," she said. "I know what they are going to throw, because it's exactly what I would do."
For her award-winning week of Feb. 11-17, the backstop hit .684, going 13-of-19 with eight runs scored and eight RBI in four games.
She had at least three hits and drove in two runs in each of Polk's four games.
Not bad for a ballerina who is afraid of the ball.