East Xtra: For this standout, Pitt was always it

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It's common for recruited high school athletes to wait until the last possible moment to announce where they are going to college, entertaining several offers and creating some suspense. Jake Jessell isn't one of those high school athletes.

A highly recruited pitcher/catcher for Woodland Hills High School, he did not waste any time in making his college decision. At the end of his freshman year, Jessell, a Swissvale resident, verbally committed to play baseball, primarily as a catcher, at the University of Pittsburgh.

Jessell, who will be a junior in the fall, was first approached by Pitt when he was with his travel team, All American Baseball, in Georgia. North Carolina State was also courting Jessell at the time, even offering him a scholarship. But, as Steve Jessell, Jake's dad, puts it, "that's as far as [the recruiting process] got."

During his freshman year, Jake repeatedly told his dad that he wanted to go to Pitt. Steve urged Jake to be cautious and not rush into a decision. But his son was certain.

"I said, 'Do you feel it in your stomach?' He said 'Yeah.' So I said, 'Call them up and tell them,'" Steve said.

Jake, however, didn't call them up and tell them -- which is the typical route for verbally committing. Instead, he scheduled a time to meet with the Pitt coaching staff in person.

Although he urged caution, Steve praises his son for never once faltering or questioning his verbal commitment. To Jake Jessell, it's an obvious choice.

"It's a great, great school. Close to home. My parents get to see me. The coaches are great," Jake Jessell said. "And, I'll get to play [Atlantic Coast Conference] baseball, which is really good."

Being close to home is important to the Jessells. Steve and Jake's mom, Kasey, both went to Woodland Hills and Kasey played softball, basketball and soccer for the Wolverines, while Steve played football, including one year at Duquesne University.

Naturally, Jake is a Pittsburgh sports fan.

"I love Pittsburgh, so it's nice to stay here," he said.

There's a reason Pitt considered offering Jessell a scholarship as a freshman to be a "no-brainer." According to the high school athletic website MaxPreps, Jake is the 43rd ranked baseball player in the Class of 2016 nationally and the best in the state of Pennsylvania.

Jessell faced an obstacle this past year, however. He jerked his back during a scrimmage in the spring, causing some pain. He played with it for a couple of weeks, but the problem only worsened, eventually revealing itself as a pars fracture of the spine. His season ended in March before it really began as he spent the entire high school season watching Woodland Hills struggle to a 2-14 record.

Watching was painful. Oftentimes, he wouldn't even want to watch from the dugout as his teammates played, his father said, but he knew it was something he needed to do. It was even hard for him to watch his 11-year-old sister, Laney, play softball.

"It's really hard to just sit there and watch when you want to be out there playing it," Jake said. "I just want to get up and run around or throw a baseball and do something."

"Brutal. That sums it up in one word. It was brutal. It was painful to watch," Steve said of watching his son go months without playing.

A 6-foot-1, 225-pound right-hander, he was supposed to show off his skills earlier this month at the Perfect Game Jr. National Showcase, as well as multiple other showcases this summer. Because of his injury, he will likely miss these opportunities -- though he will definitely be able to show off at winter showcases, as well as the spring baseball season.

Ultimately, Jake's goal is to play professional baseball.

"I would love to play for the hometown team, the Pirates. That'd be great, but if any team drafts me, it's great," he said.

That draft day might come sooner than he thinks. Based on the national rankings in his class, he could be drafted in the first five rounds of the Major League Baseball draft in 2016.

Jessell said he hasn't put much thought into what his decision would be if he was a top draft pick that year, although Jerry Oakes, Pitt's recruiting coordinator and pitching coach, has.

"I was drafted out of high school, and you think you're going to be in the big leagues, but you have no idea what's going to happen," Oakes said.

Oakes was drafted out of Archbishop Carroll High School in Upper Darby, Pa., in the seventh round of the 2000 MLB Draft. He played seven seasons of pro baseball, but never made it to the majors.

Oakes believes Pitt gives players a chance to develop at the collegiate level, in a tough conference, before signing a professional contract.

"The ACC is the best conference in the nation," Oakes said.

Of course, staying healthy is vital to any big plans Jessell might have.

A couple of weeks ago, Jake got surprising news from the doctor -- his back was nearly healed. Upon hearing the news, he immediately turned to his dad.

"Let's go hit," he said.

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