When Utes senior pitcher Katie Donovan originally committed to the program as a high school recruit, her overarching feeling was simply joy to be able to go to college and play softball in the Pac-12. By the time she arrived on campus, she’d started to seriously wonder if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.

Taking a moment to assess how things have unfolded, Donovan admitted this week, “You never really know what you’re getting into.”

Donovan, a 6-foot tall native of Salem, Ore., enters this weekend’s home-opening series for the Utes (15-11, 0-3) against conference rival Stanford (19-8, 0-0) as a three-time all-conference and all-region selection, a two-time all-academic selection and sitting atop the Pac-12′s active leaders in career wins, career strikeouts and career saves as well as career starts, innings and appearances.

“Doing both school and softball, I was really nervous about if I was going to be able to handle them,” Donovan said. “I wasn’t sure if was going to graduate in four years. I thought I would maybe have to take the fifth year and all that kind of stuff. I think it was a good ‘never goes as expected’ because I was expecting for it to be a little bit — I don’t know, maybe it’s how much you grow during the four years.”

Utah’s growth as a program has mirrored Donovan’s individual growth in many ways from a freshman full of nerves and trepidation who got thrown to the wolves to now being one of the premier pitchers in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

Last season, the Utes hosted and won the NCAA regional before coming up a one-run game shy of an appearance in the Women’s College World Series. So far this season, Donovan has posted a 9-2 record with a 2.46 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings.

“She’s the best pitcher that I’ve ever had,” Utes coach Amy Hogue said of Donovan. “She’s also the hardest-working player I’ve ever had out of all of the players, and it’s because it’s all-encompassing. It’s everything. She works hard in her classes. She eats well. She runs extra. She lifts hard. It’s not just her pitching. It’s everything. That’s why she’s the complete what you look for in a student-athlete, the full package.”

Hogue, who played on Utes teams that went to the WCWS, points to the level of competition when heaping such lofty praise on Donovan. Back in Hogue’s playing days, the opponents on a regular basis simply didn’t match up to what the Utes now face in the Pac-12.

A bio major, Donovan balances classes, lab time, practices, workouts, games and road trips while leading the Utes through the seventh-hardest schedule in the nation.

On the road, she’s taken to going through airports with one backpack strapped to her front and one the back. One of them has softball gear she can’t risk getting lost in transit, while the heavier one includes a laptop and books.

Her ability to adapt and thrive ranked high on the list of things that attracted the Utes coaching staff.

Utes staff assistant coach Cody Thomson remembers giving Donovan some tips on throwing a rise ball, during a winter camp when Donovan was still in high school. He was awed by how Donovan made big strides with that pitch almost right away.

“You’ve got to be a rise-ball pitcher. You’ve got to be a drop-ball pitcher. You’ve got to be an off-speed pitcher,” Thomson said. “You’ve got to be able to keep the best hitters in the world, really, off balance. With those different pitches, she’s able to do that. We kind of knew that at a young age. Obviously, her height helps, and that kind of stuff. We knew she was going to have good work ethic, and then we watched her make those adjustments. That’s a Division I athlete right there.”

The easy part, Thomson said, is knowing what you have to do. The hard part is getting your body to do it consistently, and Donovan does it routinely. He can give her a list of things to fine-tune, leave her to do her work, and she’ll have it down by the time he checks back with her.

Thomas refers to Pac-12 hitters as “the best hitters in the world,” Donovan has the tools to keep them off-balance.

“That’s the thing with Katie, she doesn’t have any holes in her game,” Thomson said. “We can see a hitter and go okay we need that pitch to get them out, and she can do it.”

Developing her arsenal as well as a greater understanding of the chess match between hitters and pitchers has been crucial to Donovan’s success.

“I would say that biggest growth for me is being able to have different looks you can give everyone,” Donovan said. “So day one, I might show them a lot of spin with up and some change-ups because that’s one of my better pitches. Then as I’ve gotten through the program I’ve learned how to have a second look. That would be something with a little bit more of a curve on it or a little bit more with down (spin) just because you face these teams multiple times.”

Donovan credits fellow senior pitcher Miranda Viramontes’ presence as a big part of her own individual success as well as the team’s. Donovan insists that the way the two complement one another has made her a better pitcher.

As far as those doubts Donovan had about whether she could manage everything college life and the Pac-12 would throw at her, she now says, “It doesn’t matter what you thought you could do. If halfway through you’re doing better than you thought you could, keep going. Don’t let what you thought you could do get in your way.”

Courtesy | Utah Athletics Utah freshman Katie Donovan, who has helped lead the Utes to a 12-4 start.
KATIE DONOVAN FILE

Class: Senior

Position: Pitcher

Hometown: Salem, Ore.

Age: 22

Bio: Oregon 2014 Gatorade High School Player of the Year. ... Sister, Lauren, played infield for Stanford. Mother, Linda, pitched for South Dakota State and the University of Minnesota. Grandmother, Gloria Stevenson, was honored in the South Dakota ASA Softball Hall of Fame as a pitcher. ... 2015 First Team All-Pac-12 and Second Team NFCA All-Region as well as First Team Pac-12 All-Freshman. ... 2016 NFCA Scholar Athlete, Third Team NFCA All-Region, First Team All-Pac-12, First Team Pac-12 All-Academic, CoSIDA Academic All-District. ... 2017 NFCA Third Team All-Region, Second Team All-Pac-12, CoSIDA Academic All-District, First Team All-Academic First Team.