Whatever the racket sport, Courtney Kowalsky is a competitor. And whichever one you choose, she can answer that she’s a champion.
The Oyster Bay senior won the Nassau singles badminton title this month and completed a season in which she didn’t drop a set. It became the latest and final high school athletic accolade to add to two state tennis doubles titles and a third-place state singles finish last fall.
“I realized after the fact.” Kowalsky said of the streak. “I just played each point as a separate point. And then if it became a set, I was happy about it. I just forgot the set and I played a new game every match.”
Kowalsky, Newsday’s Athlete of the Week, was familiar with her opponent, Jericho’s Jia Zhang. The pair faced off in the final in 2015 and again in last season’s semifinal. Zhang won both and took home back-to-back Nassau singles titles. The semifinal loss derailed Kowalsky’s first attempt at what she estimated would have been a perfect season. This year was different, ending in a 21-16, 21-18 final, and Kowalsky spent a lot of time getting ready to prove she could reach the top.
“I tried to practice every day to get better and better and better,” she said, “so once I actually made it to the finals and was actually playing Jia, it was like ‘Wow, I’m here and I need to perform.’ ”
Kowalsky joined the Oyster Bay tennis team in seventh grade and took up badminton in eighth. The sports have some similarities, but Kowalsky’s tennis and badminton coach, Greg Bilello, said tennis players usually steer clear of badminton.
“There are some tennis coaches out there who feel that it hurts their stroke,” Bilello said. “That it hurts their shot, that it makes them worse tennis players. She’s the exception to the rule.”
Kowalsky will continue playing tennis at Brown University. She said that when she started in badminton, she was using a lot of her tennis skills. Now, she’s developed new shots and strategies and adjusted to the game while still using the ability that makes her a force in the fall.
“In badminton, it’s more precise and you have a smaller court and the reaction time is so much quicker, so you have to get ready much quicker,” Kowalsky said. “You need to use power and finesse, you can’t just use power.”
Bilello saw that development during the final. When in the past Kowalsky may have fallen short, this time her experience and skill helped her win.
“She was like an entirely different person in that match than she had been in the past,” Bilello said. “In the past, she would come into that match a little bit nervous, and I didn’t sense that. I sensed that she was confident.”
That’s what happens when you have state titles on your resume and a perfect season in the works.
“Every time I go on the court with her, whether it’s badminton or tennis, she’s winning,” Bilello said.