Paige Turner: Paige Kopcza proved that softball is more than pitching

By JOHN GORALSKI

SPORTS WRITER

The pitcher and the defense gave up just one earned run in 1983 to set a national record for ERA (0.04) that would stand for more than two decades. Their all-state pitcher was almost unhittable as Southington roared through the postseason. The offense was just as deadly with a .336 batting average in the regular season as they out-scored opponents, 193-4.

Still, with two outs in the ninth inning of the championship game, shortstop Paige Kopcza was the only one that could protect the pitcher’s perfect game when a blistering ground ball caught the dirt and ricocheted into the air.

“It was one of those bouncers. It hit a rock and went sky high,” Kopcza said, while sipping coffee at a local eatery as she remembered the play three decades later. “It was going to be a short hopper for me to get to it, but I had to charge hard to get it on a really short hop. Otherwise, it could have gone anywhere, and Julie Bolduc was throwing a perfect game.”

Kopcza wasn’t about to spoil her pitcher’s perfect day. In one motion, she scooped the ball out of the air and fired a rocket to first base just ahead of the runner. It was just another day at the office for Southington’s prized infielder.

“Defensively, she was solid as a rock,” said former Lady Knight softball coach Joe Piazza. “She was probably my first shortstop that could go deep into the hole behind third base, backhand a ball, plant her back foot, and throw the ball across the diamond to first base. It’s not something you see that often. You probably don’t even see it a lot at the high school level now because it takes a lot of strength. Back then, it was almost unheard of.”

Kopcza was always ahead of the curve when it came to female athletes, and even though Southington girls were already leading the charge for women’s sports in Connecticut, but Kopcza took it to the next level in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the youngest of three siblings–and the only girl in her family, Kopcza honed her skills in pick-up games with the neighborhood boys. A self-confessed tomboy, she never shied from a challenge. Whether it was dirt track racing in the backyard, shooting pellet guns with her brothers, or competing in games of volleyball, kickball, or football with the neighborhood boys, Kopcza held her own.

“When they picked a team, they would sometimes pick me before half the guys,” she said. “It didn’t matter. I wasn’t a girly-girl. That’s for sure.”

She first showed her competitiveness in fifth grade when her Southington Junior Pro basketball team advanced to Tennessee to play in a national tournament. She tried her hand at gymnastics and battled for goals on the soccer fields.

Then, in 1975, she raised the bar even further when she became one of two local girls to break the gender barrier in Southington’s Little Leagues. She walked into tryouts at the Western Little League and quickly quieted any critics when she earned a position on the opening day roster.

“I didn’t think anything about it,” she said. “We didn’t have a softball league in town. That didn’t come for years and years later. I think I was fearless, but I’ll attribute that to my brothers and my dad. It was playing against all those kids in the neighborhood. I didn’t think twice about what I was doing. It was just a game. It was fun, and I was always competitive. That flame was in my stomach and I just went with it.”

Then, it almost came to a crashing halt. She was taking a throw from the outfield at midseason when she dropped the ball and fell to the ground with a broken leg. For the next six months she endured casts and a slow rehabilitation, but Kopcza returned to action the following year as a 10-year-old, made the team again, and even faced future Major League Baseball pitcher Rob Dibble on the Little League mound.

Even though she returned to the field, Kopcza never fully recovered from that early injury. She suffered a knee injury during a track meet sponsored by the Falcon Club, and that kept her out of sports for her entire seventh grade. Soon, doctors discovered bone chips that were causing her knee to lock in place that sent shooting pains up her leg. If Kopcza was going to continue as an athlete, she was forced to limit her competition.

“Softball was my love. I played basketball and volleyball at the middle school level and all these other sports in town, but I was already thinking about college as a ninth grader,” she said. “I knew I had to focus on one because that would give me an opportunity. If I focused on two or three, that might not happen.”

It turned out to be a great choice.

Piazza admitted that it might not have been her only choice, but he was glad she chose softball.

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