|Stone Bridge High School senior ace pitcher J.B. Bukauskas has informed Major League Baseball teams that he will stick with his original plan and play baseball at the University of North Carolina. Times-Mirror Photo/Rick Wasser|
"I’m 17, I feel like I need to grow up a little more and get ready for pro ball. I’m not ready for it to be my job quite yet."
It’s always been Stone Bridge High School ace J.B. Bukauskas’ dream to pitch at the college he committed to, the University of North Carolina.
That decision grew more difficult when Major League Baseball scouts came calling, perhaps giving Bukauskas a chance to achieve his ultimate dream sooner than expected.
“It started getting going in the winter, when everyone saw those velocity numbers,” said Bukauskas, who has routinely thrown his fastball in the high 90’s and recently hit 100 miles per hour. "Everybody said we’d cross that bridge [MLB draft] if we came to it. As the season went on and the scouts came in, we saw some of the mock drafts that showed me going pretty high. So we had to consider it.”
The Bulldog senior - really a junior who reclassified to graduate a year early - continued. “Once we started to really think about it, college was where I wanted to be. I’m 17, I feel like I need to grow up a little more and get ready for pro ball. I’m not ready for it to be my job quite yet.”
Money isn't everything
The decision was certainly was no easy choice.
“If our family was in more of a difficult financial situation, potentially I would have [went],” Bukauskas explained. “Because I would want to take care of my family if things were rough. But luckily things aren’t bad, so we’ll see what I can do after Carolina in that department.”
Stone Bridge coach Sam Plank has played an instrumental role throughout the process, but the 14-year veteran coach wanted Bukauskas to make up his mind for himself.
“I think everybody just let it play out, this was his decision,” Plank said. “I told J.B. when this all started, you just have to follow your heart. There is going to be a time where you’re going to know in your heart what you want. He came up to me one time and I said money isn’t everything, you can’t replace happiness. He loves UNC and wants to spend three years there.”
Although it wasn’t quite easy to temporarily decline potentially more a million dollars, Bukauskas first priority will always be his love for the game.
“I’m a baseball player first and foremost, and the money will come if it’s meant to be,” Bukauskas added.
A strong support staff
Even though the inner circle of Bukauskas wanted J.B. to make the decision for himself, his family and longtime instructor Plank were in his corner for any advice or support.
“It’s been an every day thing,” Plank said. “We’ve had 150 conversations about this in the last couple months, and I think it just came down to him being a junior in high school ... he’s so young. He believes in himself and wants to go to college for three years, and then hopefully become a top-10 pick. I believe in him, and he believes in himself, and that’s huge.”
Plank has been in the corner of Bukauskas for quite some time. The Bulldog coach has known about the uber-talents of his pitcher since he was 11 years old, when Plank and Bukauskas' father Ken opened up an indoor baseball facility, Diamond Elite. After many years of tutoring his pupil, Plank is ecstatic to see where Bukauskas’ baseball career goes.
“I’m happy for him, I could see in his eyes that he’s happy,” Plank explained. “That’s all I care about. And I get to go visit Chapel Hill, so I’m pretty excited about that. I think he’s very comfortable with his decision. I mean, he’s still going to be only 20 when he’s getting drafted at UNC.”
Bukauskas will never forget what Plank has done for his career, either.
“A very big impact,” Bukauskas said. “He’s kept me humbled, and also always keeping me working hard. He’s not our pitching coach, but he’s definitely had a massive impact not only on my baseball career, but in my life in general. He’s always been there for me and I hope that he stays in my life while I’m at Carolina, and through pro ball.”
As well as Plank, Bukauskas' parents were nothing but supportive throughout the process. Although it was ultimately Bukauskas’ decision, his family was a perfect crutch to bounce thoughts off of.
“It was a team effort to a point,” Bukauskas noted. “They said if you get a certain amount of money in the draft, and you still want to go to college, we’ll leave it up to you. They are there for guidance, and helped a lot in the process. It was very stressful. But we got through it, and we’re all happy with the result.”
And although it will be hard for Bukauskas’ mother to see her son leave the house, she is fully behind her son’s choice.
“She’s alright. She obviously, like any mom, doesn’t want to see her kid go off to school,” Bukauskas added. “I think she’s more happy I’m going to Carolina as opposed to the pros because like I said, it’s more of a family environment that will help me grow up more. I’m sure she’ll be happy after college if I move onto professional ball.”
A solid case to be a Tar Heel
Much of Bukauskas’ decision revolved around his instincts and what he thought was best for himself. However, it made the decision a little easier based on the research the North Carolina coaching staff made available to the flamethrower.
The Tar Heel coaches were well aware of the fact that of the 356 college pitchers drafted in the first round from 1965-2008, 253 (71.1 percent) made the major leagues. On the flipside, 176 of the 307 pitchers (57.3) drafted out of high school in that time period made it to the highest level.
“They handled it very well,” Plank said of the UNC staff. “At one point they completely understood that if he was going to be a top-10 pick, they were definitely going to accept that. I respected how they handled the entire situation, they didn’t pressure him too much. They stated their case, which is a very good case about the research about guys going to the MLB out of college as opposed to high school.”
That research, which included an 8.7 percent increase in the likelihood of making 100-plus MLB appearances drafted from the college level, played a factor in the Stone Bridge pitcher’s ultimate decision.
“The success rate is definitely in college,” Bukauskas explained. “College guys make it way more often than high school guys. If you can make it in college, it’s a good sign. So if I go there and show well, hopefully I can follow in the footsteps of guys like Matt Harvey."
"They say Division I baseball is the equivilant of about AA pro ball," he continued. "So if you play three years in college ball, you’ll have a lot more experience and will be able to go through the professional steps that much faster.”
It also helps that former St. Albans (D.C.) pitcher Danny Hultzen took a similar path in 2008, electing to attend the University of Virginia instead of possibly being selected late in the first round of the draft, like Bukauskas. He went on to star for three years as an ace, then was selected as the second overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in the 2011 draft.
“A lot of the scouts, when they came to our house, brought [Hultzen] up,” Bukauskas said. “They said this is what he did, but they obviously were not hoping to hear that from me. But it made so much sense. He went to school after being in a similar situation, and then he ended up being the second pick. So that seemed like a pretty good deal to me. Obviously I’m not necessarily expecting that to happen to me, but hopefully something like it.”
Since announcing his decision, Bukauskas has consistently received complimentary comments and excitement from the UNC coaching staff and fans.
“They are very excited, the coaches were definitely excited to hear that I would definitely be a Tar Heel,” Bukauskas said. “Some of the alumni and fans were supporting me on Twitter as well, so I know I’ll be welcome there and it’s nice to hear. It’s definitely going to be more of a family environment than in the pros, and that’s another big reason why I made this decision.”
History still to be made at Stone Bridge
As long as Bukauskas continues to throw like he has - 37-plus consecutive scoreless innings - for the 16-1 Bulldogs, the 2017 MLB Draft will be a historic one for baseball in Loudoun County. But the pitcher and his Stone Bridge teammates have their eyes on a goal that has never been accomplished in school history: a state final appearance.
“It’s awesome, coach Plank said it was the first time in SB baseball history that we’re ranked at number 1 in the [Washington] Post,” Bukauskas said. “The second highest was two. This is a great run and I hope we can continue winning.
"I would love it for [us to make state tournament] this year. We have a great team. I’m happy some of these other guys are getting innings right now, so we're going to be strong when we hit the playoffs. The last few games our pitchers have been dominant, and that depth will only help us.”
Plank also gets the sense that something special is brewing in Ashburn, but wants the team to take it day by day.
“We’re just taking it one goal at a time,” Plank said. “The kids don’t even really talk about it. This team is so focused on winning the next game and playing tough. Every guy is up for the game ready to help us win.”
No matter what the Bulldogs and Bukauskas accomplish this season, it certainly won’t be the last of the newspaper headlines for the senior pitcher. Although it was in doubt at one point, the fans of the University of North Carolina will get to watch the art that is Bukauskas pitching.
“I want to grow up and meet people in college, so I don’t want to miss out on that part of my life,” Bukauskas concluded. “It’s going to be a big experience going to Chapel Hill.”