Whitacre Overcomes Disease To Lead Staff

Posted: May 19, 2015
The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — With radar gun readings being flashed after every pitch at Major League Baseball games, it seems like velocity means everything nowadays in baseball.

Unless he’s driving around in his car though, James Wood senior right-hand pitcher Bryan Whitacre doesn’t think about miles per hour.

“I have not been clocked [on the radar gun] in the last three years,” Whitacre said. “For me personally, it’s better not to know.

“People tell me I throw this speed or that speed, and I say, ‘No, I throw under it.’ It pushes me to go harder and to prove to myself that I can throw harder.”

You need more than a strong will to have success. But that statement does show why Whitacre was able to pitch with a feeding tube running from his nose to his stomach last year, and how he’s one of the area’s best pitchers today.

Third-seeded James Wood (12-7) will host No. 6 Sherando (8-12) at 6 p.m. today at R. Charles Hott Field in the Conference 21 quarterfinals, and the performance of Whitacre is a huge reason why the Colonels have as good as shot as anyone at joining Conference 21 regular season champion Woodgrove in the 4A North Region tournament.

Whitacre — who much prefers to talk about the team rather than himself — is tied for the area lead in wins (5-1 record), leads the area in strikeouts (52), ranks second in innings pitched (422/3) and boasts a stellar 0.98 WHIP and .197 batting average against.

Whitacre pitched in six of James Wood’s seven Conference 21 games this year, and the Colonels went 5-1 in those contests. The one game James Wood lost came against Millbrook, an outing that Whitacre had to leave after three shutout innings because of pitch limitation rules. (Whitacre pitched a complete-game 3-2 win over Dominion four days prior.)

Though a couple of setbacks limited Whitacre’s innings as a junior, James Wood second-year head coach Brent Lockhart didn’t see any reason why Whitacre couldn’t have this type of success as a senior.

“He’s one of those kids who’s hasn’t plateaued,” said Lockhart, who was Whitacre’s JV coach his first two years of high school and varsity coach the last two. “He really has an outstanding work ethic, and pushes his body to however much it can take.”

A year ago, Whitacre was simply having trouble taking food.

Whitacre was born with Celiac Disease, which according to the Celiac Disease Foundation affects about one in 100 people. Whitacre is allergic to wheat, rye and barley (all products that have gluten) as well as oats (which frequently come in contact with gluten products). When people with Celiac Disease eat gluten, their body responds by attacking the small intestine, and nutrients cannot be properly absorbed into the body.

Whitacre was diagnosed with Celiac Disease at the age of 6, so he’s had to be careful about it for a long time.

“I have to watch what I’m eating 24-7,” Whitacre said. “Every now and then I’ll have a bad day and it will affect me pitching wise, but I just have to power through it.”

In addition to eating them, Whitacre said touching a gluten product or just being in a room with regular flour can cause problems.

Though doctors don’t know for sure, Whitacre said they think Celiac might be the reason why he started having issues digesting food in December of 2013.

For much of the next six months, Whitacre received his food through a tube. It was inserted and removed a few times. After two or three weeks the feeding tube would be removed to see if Whitacre could digest food normally, but if he went a few days without being able to digest food the two-to-three week tube cycle for Whitacre began again.

“The feeding tube opened up my esophagus,” Whitacre said. “Scar tissue had grown over it, and the feeding tube created a hole for food to flow down into my stomach.

“In a word, the best way to describe it would be ‘uncomfortable.’ I had a lot of liquid stuff — Ensures, pediatric-nutrient drinks.”

Whitacre had his feeding tube permanently removed just after pitching five innings in a loss on May 16 against eventual state finalist Millbrook. Both Lockhart and Millbrook coach Brian Burke raved about Whitacre’s performance in that game.

Because of the struggles with the feeding tube, Whitacre wasn’t able to put in as much work as he wanted before the season. And the feeding tube combined with an ankle that he injured splitting wood in the beginning of the season limited him for a good portion of the actual season.

Still, Whitacre pitched 201/3 innings last year and recorded a 2.99 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and .250 batting average against while striking out 16 and walking nine.

“I could tell it was tough for him,” said senior catcher Cohen Kerns, who has caught Whitacre three of the past four years. “You could see he was struggling with it, but I think it made him work harder to become better.”

The results show he just keeps getting better.

Whitacre starred for American Legion Post 21’s Junior team last year, recording a 4-3 record with a 2.31 ERA in 42 1/3 innings. He struck out 61 batters — more than twice the total of any of his teammates — while walking 16 as Winchester advanced to the state tournament.

Armed with his three-quarters throwing motion, a fastball, a curveball with plenty of break, and a changeup, Whitacre is mowing down opponents left and right.

Against Loudoun County on March 24, he pitched six shutout innings (three hits allowed, six strikeouts).

Against Park View on April 7, he pitched a five-inning no-hitter — the first of his life — striking out eight and walking one.

On April 16, he allowed one hit and struck out seven in five innings in a 3-0 win against Sherando.

He got a no-decision against Woodgrove on April 21, but in allowing just two runs in 61/3 innings he played a major role in a 3-2 James Wood win in eight innings that stands as Woodgrove’s only Conference 21 loss.

In his last start, Whitacre struck out 12 batters in a 1-0, four-hit shutout of Heritage to clinch the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament for James Wood.

Whitacre is quick to pass the credit to others for his success this year.

“Our pitching coach [Josh Dick] has done a really phenomenal job with not just me but our whole pitching staff,” Whitacre said. “We’re executing our pitches when he calls them.

“I trust my pitching coach. I trust my catcher Cohen Kerns. And when they hit the ball I trust my defense behind me and know that they’ll make the plays they need to make.”

That’s just what Lockhart wants to hear.

“We’re not all that concerned with velocity,” Lockhart said. “We just want our pitchers to keep it low, hit their spots, and mix their pitches up, and he’s been doing a great job of that.”

When it comes to his favorite performance, Whitacre has a lot of options. The no-hitter might seem like an obvious one (“That was definitely a great feeling,” he said), but the importance of the Heritage game can’t be understated.

“It was a good night all-around,” Whitacre said. “The whole team made that win and shutout happen.”

Whitacre has played a central role in a lot of special moments this year. Lockhart said Whitacre organized a veterans night for James Wood’s home game against Sherando on April 16. Each member of the team was required to talk to a military veteran and bring them to the game, and those veterans were honored while standing next to the players before the game.

Lockhart won’t say how he’s going to use Whitacre in today’s game against Sherando. But whether he’s getting the start or coming on for a couple of innings of relief, Whitacre’s going to make James Wood feel good while he’s out there.

And while his speed won’t be clocked, Kerns will know it’s there.

“He’s come a long way since his freshman year,” Kerns said. “His control of the ball has improved, and even in just the last year his speed has gotten a lot better. You can tell when you catch, because it hurts your hand a little bit more.”

Whitacre, Kerns announce college plans

In a signing ceremony last week, Whitacre announced he will attend NCAA Division III Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga., while Kerns announced he will play for Chesapeake Community College in Wye Mills, Md.

An assistant coach for Piedmont saw Whitacre at a camp in Campbell University in North Carolina and stayed in contact with him throughout last summer. Piedmont watched Whitacre pitch in the American Legion Junior state tournament in Richmond, and he was invited to the school for a recruiting trip.

“I want to be a civil engineer, and they have a partnership with Georgia Tech,” said Whitacre, who will receive a partial academic scholarship. “I’ll be at Piedmont for three or four years, then go to Georgia Tech for two years. I also like it because the campus reminds me of home, and they’ve got great coaching down there.”

Piedmont, which competes in the USA South, went 23-17 overall and 18-12 in conference play last year.

Kerns said he contacted Chesapeake last summer through a recruiting website and sent them a video of his highlights and information. After taking a recruiting trip, Kerns committed to Chesapeake three weeks ago.

“I like the campus,” Kerns said. “I love that it’s on the Chesapeake Bay, and they also have environmental science, which is what I’m going to major in.”

Chesapeake went 15-26 last year.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1