Ben Jukich’s stop at Dakota Wesleyan University whizzed past as fast as his 95-mph fastball, which turned a one-year stay into an anomaly.
The 2006 season lasted 51 games and saw Jukich take the mound 19 times. But as he turned from an unheralded junior college pitcher to the equivalent of Cadwell Park’s Nolan Ryan, in the eyes of former DWU coach Adam Neisius, he left marks on the Tigers’ record books that still stand 14 years later.
It’s what set up a professional career which saw Jukich become the first Great Plains Athletic Conference player selected in the MLB Draft with a 13th-round selection by the Oakland Athletics, then make Triple-A in the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Duluth, Minnesota native and former curler later became an all-star pitcher for Korea Baseball Organization’s LG Twins.
But the springboard happened in 2006, when he toed the rubber at Cadwell Park and torched GPAC batters.
“He’s easily one of the top-five NAIA pitchers that I’ve coached against or played with, for sure,” said Josh Oltmans, who played center field for the Tigers in 2006 and currently coaches at Doane University (Neb.). “There might be a couple of guys recently that I think could of that’d be in that mix. He would be in the argument to be in top-two-or-three arms.”
Heading into the season
Neisius remembers the first time he stood behind home plate to watch Jukich pitch. He umpired DWU’s fall World Series, giving him a chance to see the 6-foot-5 left-hander hurl 94 to 95 mph fastballs into the strike zone with precision. It turned his expectations from being a weekend starter to the team’s ace.
He looked like an MLB prospect by fall, even if MLB scouts didn’t have him on their radar yet. The prior season he didn’t touch 90 mph with his fastball at McCook Community College. Jukich added 30 pounds to his long frame and improved his mechanics, which Neisius still touts, leading to his fastball gaining 5 mph in an offseason.
“Every pitch he released felt like it started right at my ear hole,” said the left-handed Oltmans, who also played with Jukich at McCook. “There was definitely times I was facing him, being in the box, hoping that was going toward the zone and not my head.”
Jukich credits McCook for his second chance at baseball, but it wasn’t the move from McCook, Nebraska, to Mitchell which propelled his career. He wasn’t highly-recruited, but Neisius “threw as much as I could on the table,” when he discovered him. The DWU coach knew what he had before Jukich did, and it showed over the summer.
Jukich’s fastball sped up and improved as he faced NCAA Division I bats in the summer Northwoods League.
“The confidence that oozes from somebody with the ability to throw a 95 miles per hour fastball at that level (is high),” Jukich said. “I quite literally was, ‘Here you go, I’m going to throw you a fastball and you can’t hit it.’ That’s what it was. It wasn’t anything other than that.”
It was a noticeable difference. Shane Cochran also played with Jukich at McCook, but he attended South Dakota State University first before showing up a month before the 2006 season. By the time he arrived on campus, Jukich had transformed from a solid pitcher, to throwing pitches hitters had a hard time seeing in practice.
“I don’t remember him being that good at McCook,” said Cochran, who played first base and right field in 2006. “He was good -- don’t get me wrong -- but nowhere near how good he was at Dakota Wesleyan. He got better, threw harder and much more movement on his fastball and curveball/slider.”
The frame, velocity and mechanics were all there. Being left-handed was a bonus.
Off the field, Neisius knew his ace’s past and pulled the right strings, too. Jukich flunked out of Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd, Minnesota, in 2001, calling it a “party year.” By 2004, he enlisted in the Army and was ready to be shipped to Georgia when McCook offered him a scholastic offer to get out of his enlistment after he pitched in front of one of his friends’ brother, a coach at McCook.
Despite the unorthodox journey to Mitchell, it gave him time to grow into his 6-foot-5 frame as a 23-year-old junior. At DWU, he was partnered with David Anderson, a 4.0 GPA student and fellow pitcher, in the weight room to help him stay on track in the classroom and develop a better work ethic.
“David was a beast. I mean, you talk about a work ethic in the gym and in the classroom, that kid had it all,” Jukich said. “He was frickin’ unbelievable in the weight room. He pushed me for sure, and I needed it. ... To have somebody like David was instrumental in the success I had in building my work ethic once I got to the pros.”
For as dominant as Jukich was in practice, he only improved as the season went on. Neisius tried to think of what to do in case Jukich ran into a slump, but it never happened. He started rolling before the season, and never stopped.
“Once he got going and once we were able to get outside and get him into a routine,” said Neisius, who now coaches at Friends University (Kan.). “and part of our throwing program, and have something for him where he knew he had to stay on task all the time within the program, he just got better and better.”
A dominating regular season
Jukich hurled gem after gem, but what game stands out most from 2006?
A March 26, 2006, start against eventual GPAC regular season champion Midland (Neb.) at Drake Field. Jukich struck out a school-record 17 batters in a one-hit complete game (in seven innings), helping DWU to a 12-1 win and earning him NAIA national player of the week honors. The one hit was a Chris Knutson solo home run down the right-field line.
“It was a foul ball by 15 feet and they called it a home run,” Jukich said.
“Everybody thought it was clearly foul, but they gave him a home run there,” Oltmans said. “We were like, ‘Are you serious? There’s no shot that was fair.’ ”
The Tigers were 12-8 on the season, and scouts were showing up regularly every time Jukich took the mound. It had been more than a month since he allowed two earned runs in a seven-inning start at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, which is when Neisius remembers word getting out of a left-hander throwing a mid-90 mph fastball.
His early-season pitch count had already started to be loosened as the weather warmed, but even as Jukich plowed down batters to a school record and nation-high 144 strikeouts, he was able to maintain his pitch count in most starts.
“I remember talking to some infielders and they’re like, ‘It’s great, but it’s kind of boring because he strikes a lot of people out. We don’t get to play very much,’ ” Neisius said.
Neisius stressed throwing inside to hitters, and Jukich’s mentality turned into throwing three pitches in the zone to force opposing teams to beat him. He was able to miss pitches to set up his next pitch and force a lot of swing and misses.
“There were definitely a lot of strikeouts, or if they were put in play, they weren’t hit very hard,” Cochran said. “You could always tell if they were going to hit it, they were going to be behind it, so no one was going to pull anything on him.”
The Tigers knew a couple of runs gave them a good shot at winning the game when Jukich was on the mound. He gave them extra swagger and the feeling they could hang with anyone.
He finished with a 1.90 ERA, 15 walks and .211 opponent batting average over 94.2 innings, with everyone saying he improved as the year went on.
“Ben could just figure out a way to get guys out. He could do it between pitches,” Neisius said. “Then you got a chance to go sit in the dugout between innings and talk to our catcher, talk to me and talk to our pitching coach, Ben was able to execute a plan.”
On April 22, 2006, against Briar Cliff, he showed his toughness. He went to get a drink of water before a game with 13 scouts in the Cadwell Park stands, but slipped down the dugout stairs and sprained his left ankle.
“I remember sitting there going, ‘I have to throw. I cannot back out of this game at this point,’ ” Jukich said.
The athletic trainer taped his ankle and he went out and tried to light up the radar gun. With a sprained push-off ankle, Jukich struck out 11 batters and only allowed one hit in a six-inning start.
It became more common to have multiple MLB scouts in the stands than none. Oltmans remembers seeing radar guns raised for every pitch. Jukich remained level-headed throughout the process, though. He was mature enough to handle the attention, but still too naive to realize the magnitude of the situation.
“I think I was too young and too stupid to understand what was going on,” Jukich said. “It was just, ‘Cool. This is awesome. I’m going to soak this in and I’m going to go out and throw the ball as hard as I can.’ ”
Neisius told him to stay prepared throughout the week, and the numbers and accolades followed.
Jukich, who had seven double-digit strikeout games, became an NAIA All-American honorable mention and GPAC player of the year during DWU’s 29-22 campaign. He still holds single-season records for wins (10) and strikeouts (144), while his nine complete games played a major role in the 2006 team setting the program-record of 19 complete games.
He had an 80-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in conference play, as he fanned at least 10 batters in six of seven starts. He allowed just 11 hits through his first 34 GPAC innings.
“It was a dumb season statistically for me,” Jukich said. “It was crazy.”
He put on a spectacle nearly every time on the mound, parlaying into being the 398th overall selection in the MLB Draft by the A’s.
“Ben knew there were people in stands everytime he went out to pitch. He knew he had to go out and perform, and perform well,” Neisius said. “… He knew he had to do something pretty special every time out to keep those guys coming back. And man, he continued to do it every single start.”