High school softball players from across Illinois eagerly awaited a chance to return to the field in 2021 and show what they could do after a 2020 prep season lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
Few craved that opportunity more than Ottawa’s Abby Bukantis. And few did more with it.
Bukantis is The Times 2021 Softball Player of the Year after a spring campaign that saw the right-hander finally – after waiting three long years – step into Ottawa’s ace pitching role and lead her team to a 22-5 season, a runner-up finish in the demanding Interstate Eight Conference and a Class 3A regional championship.
“It meant a lot that I finally got the chance to have my own year and prove myself,” the recent Ottawa graduate said. “And I thought I did pretty well.”
That would be an understatement.
Bukantis already was an ace-level talent when she first came to Ottawa. An immensely talented young pitcher with big-game experience and an incredibly high ceiling, she was recruited at the Division-I level and eventually committed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha while still an underclassman.
At most schools, Bukantis would have been the undisputed No. 1 pitcher as a freshman. For the Pirates, however, with a fellow D-I recruit two years her senior in pitcher Sloan Gayan [currently playing for the University of Kentucky] entrenched and dominating in that ace role, Bukantis served as an overqualified No. 2. During those 9th- and 10th-grade seasons, Bukantis threw 101 1/3 innings, striking out 112 batters while compiling an 11-2 record with a 2.42 earned-run average.
“This season was especially important for Abby, just because her freshman and sophomore years she pitched on the varsity, but it was kind of in the fill-in games here and there when we had busy weeks. I think it was especially important for her to get this senior season.”
— Ottawa softball coach Adam Lewis
When fellow The Times Softball Player of the Year Gayan left to Pomp and Circumstance, it was Bukantis’ time to shine.
Then came COVID-19 and the loss of her entire junior season.
She made up for lost time this past spring, however, posting a 15-4 record with a 0.85 ERA and 175 strikeouts with only 16 walks against a very tough schedule. Bukantis helped herself a bit at the plate as well with 13 hits and handful of RBIs.
“This season was especially important for Abby just because her freshman and sophomore years she pitched on the varsity, but it was kind of in the fill-in games here and there when we had busy weeks,” Pirates coach Adam Lewis said. “I think it was especially important for her to get this senior season.
“I think the only question we really had was, we knew how good she was, and it wasn’t a secret what we had waiting in the wings. Our only concern was how she was going to bounce back from injury [torn labrum], but she worked her tail off all winter and turned it into a nonfactor. She did a really nice job coming back slowly and smartly and just working hard to put herself in a position to have a really good senior season.”
That she did, following a fantastic regular season with two spectacular sectional performances, including a perfect game – 21 up, 21 down – against regional champion and 19-win Oak Forest at King Field.
“That felt really cool that I got to do that,” Bukantis said. “It made me kind of proud, [because] I can’t say I’ve done that in such a big game before. I was pretty nervous to play against them too.”
Bukantis and the Pirates then traveled to take on powerhouse Lemont in search of OHS’s first sectional title, but lost a 2-0 nail-biter. Bukantis allowed only four hits and one walk to the eventual Class 3A state runner-up, with both Lemont runs scoring on groundouts.
“Against Lemont, I also felt I did pretty well,” Bukantis said. “I had some really good games, but I couldn’t have done it without [my defense]. We had a really good year this year.”
Great control and wipeout stuff, particularly her plus changeup and devastating curveball, are two reasons Bukantis was so effective. It’s her relaxed mindset and team-first approach, however, that truly set her apart.
“I don’t get easily flustered,” said Bukantis when asked about her mental game. “If I’m in a hard situation, I don’t freak out. I know I can get myself out of it.
“I just try to take it easy. I’m calm. I know I can make it through.”
“From a mental standpoint it was definitely her personality and demeanor,” Lewis said. “Those are the first two things that pushed her up that hill. Not only was she our best player, she was our best teammate.”
Now, finally having proven herself at the varsity level and off to play D-I softball, Bukantis’ next goal is simple: Keep getting better.
“I think I’m going to continue to build up and try and become a better pitcher and a better player,” she said. “I’ll be going through a lot of workouts with college coaches, trying to improve my speed and my spin. I just think I can only become better.”