Jess Kovatch of Phillipsburg becomes Northeast Conference all-time leading scorer
Hailing from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Jess Kovatch loved playing basketball even before high school. A two-sport athlete at Phillipsburg High School, participating in basketball and lacrosse, Kovatch was named the 2014 West Jersey Player of the Year and Warren County All-First Team and Player of the Year while becoming the first underclassmen to score 1,000 points, the highest total after three seasons of 1,176.
Despite all those accomplishments, Kovatch did not see major Division I schools recruiting her heavily nor offering a scholarship. That is what gave her motivation to play with a chip on her shoulder and spark her basketball talent and work ethic.
“Getting overlooked by Lehigh and Lafayette took away a little from my confidence and I thought I was not good enough to play at the Division I level,” said Kovatch. “I had a great coach and teammates, my family was very supportive in bringing me to tournaments and prepared me to come to college. This is what I knew I wanted to do and give it 110 percent.”
Kovatch silenced all her naysayers in her freshman year at St. Francis University when she led all NCAA freshman at 20.9 points per game, setting a school and Northeast Conference freshman scoring record (649 points). She became the first Saint Francis freshman to score 30 points in a game and was named Northeast Conference and ECAC Rookie of the Year and NEC Second-Team All-Conference.
“I just wanted to do what my team needed me to do,” Kovatch said. “When I got the starting position I knew I had to make the most of it. The coaches wanted to see who could play and scoring was never a problem for me and was my strength. The coach noticed that and utilized it and gave me the green light to shoot and that’s where I gained my confidence. No one knew who I was and what I could do. Just trying to figure out my game and what I can and can’t do. After the season ended I set the bar very high.”
Just when you though Kovatch would encounter a sophomore jinx, she extinguished that perception becoming the 25th player to reach 1,000 points in 47 games or fewer, 11th in the NCAA in scoring averaging 21.2 points per game and topping the 30 point mark three times including a career-high of 45 points vs. Central Connecticut. Most significantly is Kovatch worked on knocking down shots from beyond the arc, setting a program record of 110 made in a single-season.
“I knew going from high school to college the line was further back and I practice extending my range and find my comfortable shooting,” said Kovatch. “Five behind the line is tough to guard and puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Step back three’s and figured out how to come off screens and where I’m going to go and read the defense more and react to instead of something set in my head.”
Continuing to rise up the ladder her junior year, Kovatch set a conference record with 831 points, second in the NCAA in total points and averaged 24.4 points per game while setting an NCAA record with 141 three-pointers. Kovatch eclipsed the 2,000 point mark in 91 games. The Red Flash finished the season with a 24-10 overall record, 16-2 in the NEC and defeated Robert Morris in the conference tournament championship game. Kovatch kept on breaking records, burying 11 trifecta’s against Fairleigh Dickinson University in the first round, yet another school and conference record. The season ended on a sour note as the team was trounced by the University of Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament 140-52.
“Once the first two shots went down I had that unstoppable feeling and overwhelming confidence in me and game I won’t forget,” Kovatch said. “I proved to everyone who overlooked me I have the ability and skills. As a kid you want to play in the NCAA Tournament and only way to get there is to win a championship. We had one common goal and the most athletic team I ever played on. Even though we lost to UCONN in the NCAA Tournament, it was an experience we won’t forget and knew other teams’ were not playing and made the most out of it.”
Entering her final season at Saint Francis (PA), Kovatch has continued to flourish. On December 16 against Montana, Kovatch became the school’s all-time leading scorer when she scored 20 points and registered her 2,345 career point. However, the defining moment and crowning achievement occurred at Mount St. Mary’s (MD.) where Kovatch scored a season-high 34 points and became the NEC all-time leading scorer, passing Wagner’s Terrance Bailey with 2,622 points.
“It’s an accomplishment, coming in never a goal throughout the years,” said Kovatch. “I would not have been able to do it without my teammates, coaching staff and system we play in. It meant a lot coming in and how impactful Jess Zinoble was and just to have my name up there with her. Coming into the game I knew I was only four points away so I was not worried about it and just played the game and wanted to win. I really didn’t receive any recognition during the game but afterwards my teammates and coaching staff we’re very supportive.”
Kovatch’s play on the court this season has earned her NEC Player of the Week the past three consecutive weeks in a row and five times overall, scored 20 or more points 17 times and averaging 22.7 points per game. She is also a finalist for the Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School) Award.
“It shows what St. Francis can provide up in having a good education and professors,” Kovatch said. “We are always giving back to the community and have community service events. We love doing it and just show the culture and family atmosphere. The professors know when you have games and specifics of everything and know your background and where you came from. They understand the time you have to put into athletics and help us out in the classroom.”
“We have required study hours that help us keep on track and professors are easy to talk to. The coaching staff wants you do better in academics even if it conflicts with practice. Studying for a test is the number one priority, they teach us time management, knowing when to do homework, finding time to practice and put in extra work.”
The town of Phillipsburg has kept track of Kovatch’s progress at St. Francis (PA) as well.
“Everyone is so supportive and proud, they believed in me back in high school even though I did not believe in myself. I’m not home much but my family is there and when they see people in town they congratulate them for my accomplishments and it’s very humbling.”
“It makes my parents’ proud and to put Phillipsburg, New Jersey on the map. They did a lot for me and I want to repay them. I still get texts from my high school teachers and coach and keep in touch.”
With the season winding down, Kovatch said she is living in the moment right now and taking in the present, especially the home games. The goal is focused on winning another NEC championship and guiding the freshman.
“Senior night is going to be very special and play with a lot of emotion. DEGOL Arena is an amazing place to play, a great environment and everyone is involved and engaged. Families are there to support you and you play for them. Basketball is a game of runs and when the fans are involved we are unstoppable. They are so loud you can’t hear the person next to you.”
Asked in closing what the future plans are regarding playing basketball at the professional level, Kovatch responded, “Overseas or WNBA, whoever wants me, I will give it 110 percent and want to keep playing basketball because that’s my passion and regardless of where it’s at.”
Sunil Sunder Raj
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