Scholar Stories: Buca Making it Big on Pitch, in Electrical Engineering profiles Electrical Engineering undergrad Kevin Buca, a midfielder on the University of Michigan Men's soccer team.
Buca dribbles on the soccer field Enlarge

Kevin Buca may not show up on video. Hidden among taller players, you may have to squint to see No. 19 for the University of Michigan men’s soccer team.

He’s listed on the opponent’s scouting report, too, but inevitably, there’ll be a player who sees him and thinks, “I got that guy.”

And therein lies the mistake. One of the oldest rules of sports is to never underestimate your opponent. Standing at a mere 5-foot-5, Buca gets the underdog treatment every time he steps onto a soccer pitch.

“There was a time when I was younger, maybe 13 or 14, where I really struggled with the height difference,” he said. “You learn pretty quickly to play to your strengths. That means I have to think faster on the field, to be faster on the ball and to anticipate plays before they happen. As long as I’m putting myself in those situations, then height doesn’t really make a difference.

“I’ve had coaches in the past who don’t really expect much from me. I’m always out to prove them wrong. That’s my thing. I want to prove people wrong.”

In a nutshell, that’s Buca’s story: nothing given, everything earned.

As big of a role as soccer has played in his life, academics have played an equal (if not greater) role. A lot of that comes from his parents, Rodica and Valentin, a pair of Romanian immigrants who came to the United States in 1995.

Kevin always wanted to have the chance to be a student-athlete, but he was not going to sacrifice academics to do it.

“If you educate yourself and excel in what you do, that’ll open so many doors,” he said. “It was always my dream to come to the University of Michigan. If you see someone with a Michigan degree, it’s going to turn heads. I aspired to make it here.”

After what he described as a “roller coaster” of a recruiting process, Buca committed to Michigan — with two caveats. One, he would be a walk-on. And two, he would commit knowing that a spot would not be guaranteed to him, at least not right away. The plan was to join as a mid-semester enrollee, bypassing the fall season.

At this point, Buca was wearing two casts at the same time, one as the result of wrist surgery and the other because of a broken ankle. Preseason was coming up and he did not really know anything more about his status.

There simply was not any space on the roster for him — until there was. Two weeks before the start of preseason camp, Buca got a call from head coach Chaka Daley. A spot was open, and it was his.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Buca said, “knowing I’d be there from the start. For me, being a walk-on doesn’t mean that much. It’s definitely very humbling, but I see myself on the same level as everyone else. That’s the mentality I went in with, and it’s paid off. From there, it became about how I could push myself and grow as a player.”

That work ethic has paid dividends. In two years, Buca has evolved into a huge contributor, playing in 30 matches, including 13 starts last year as a sophomore. Though he has yet to score a goal, he has been involved in some big moments (see: PK shootouts in two NCAA Tournament matches in 2018) and clearly has carved out an integral role within the group.

“Preparation is an enormous part of playing,” he said. “Every time I step on the field, I give it everything I have.”

Buca dribbles on the soccer field Enlarge

Buca is enrolled in the College of Engineering, majoring in electrical engineering with a minor in computer science. Heading into college, he debated between studying medicine and engineering, but once he took a couple physics classes, the choice became obvious.

“Engineering is one of those fields where you can make an impact regardless of what you decide to do,” he explained, mentioning specifically the creation of autonomous vehicles or designing systems to reduce traffic on roadways. “Electrical engineering is about designing faster implementations for some of the things we have now.”

Last spring, Buca was the recipient of the Sophomore Leader & Best Award, given annually to the top sophomore student-athlete who demonstrates Michigan’s Leaders and Best qualities both academically and athletically.

“When I set out to do things, I don’t think about awards. I think about how I can improve myself as a person,” he said. “The way I see it, if you do well in your journey, the recognition will come.”

Buca had a few opportunities lined up over the summer, but COVID-19 washed them all away. Still, he has made the most of the situation, leaning on his computer science studies to learn about website construction.

Not being able to compete this fall was a particularly tough pill to swallow. Yet Buca, now an upperclassman, has tried to find the positive.

“It’s very disappointing that we aren’t able to have a season this fall, but as a team, we’ve really come together,” he said. “We had a great first month, and really took it as an opportunity to gel and get better through training. The coaches have done an outstanding job of coordinating that and creating some kind of competition within the team. Everyone is fully engaged and 100 percent invested in developing themselves.”

Buca clearly is not one to shy away from the hard work. Whether in the classroom or on the field, his student-athlete experience at Michigan has proved that no challenge is too tall.

“Michigan provides you with so many opportunities when you’re here and after you leave,” he said. “The networking and relationships you build are invaluable. Being here opens new doors, new avenues for growth. Above all, it provides you with the resources to develop as a person and an athlete. It makes you better.”

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