Earning Her Place
March 24, 2009
By Larry Watts
When Liane Horiuchi made her decision to leave the national softball powerhouse at the University of Tennessee and head to Purdue in the summer of 2007, the Boilermakers came up with a steal in more ways than one.
With Horiuchi serving a redshirt season in 2008, the Boilers would be able to groom a solid replacement for leadoff hitter Ashley Hall. All Hall did in her final year was bat .298 and score 36 runs. The previous year, she set a Purdue single-season record with 36 stolen bases.
But there was one little problem. A middle infielder most of her life, the 5-foot-5 Horiuchi had to learn to play third base, Hall's old position.
"We (the infielders) were all moving around a lot during the preseason," Horiuchi says. "It wasn't until a couple of weeks before our first game that the coaches let me know I'd be seeing action at third this year.
"It's the first time I've ever played third, but it's been a pretty smooth transition. It takes a little bit getting used to as far as reading the ball off the bat and reacting. I haven't lost any teeth yet, but it's gotten close a couple of times.
"I try not to think about being so much closer to the batter," she adds. "It's definitely a different feel for the ball. There's no time to think, just reaction."
So far, Horiuchi's soft glove has proven to be a valuable asset to the Purdue defense. Through a 16-8 start (2-0 Big Ten) to the season, the junior has handled the hot corner with a .934 fielding percentage, making only six errors in 91 chances.
And at the top of the order, she has been busy setting the table for the Boilers. Her .373 batting average and 18 runs scored are tops on the team while she has been hit a conference-high of 11 times and has yet to be caught in 23 stolen base attempts.
"We work a lot on speed and agility drills with our strength and conditioning staff," she says. "I feel like I've gotten a little faster and there seem to be more opportunities to steal now."
Although she had been a starter at second base, when she earned All-Freshman honors in the SEC, and at shortstop as a sophomore at Tennessee, Horiuchi felt she needed a new lease on life, both athletically and academically. Her batting average dipped from .273 as a freshman to .199 in her second season.
"It was about both athletics and academics," she says about leaving a Volunteer program after playing in two World Series. "My goal is to get into a good pharmaceutical school and I wanted a place that provided me with that option."
A native of Wahiawa, Hawaii, Horiuchi was away from home, where she has three brothers and two sisters, for the first time. Her first thoughts were to transfer to the West Coast, where the travel distance would be a lot closer, so she was checking out Brigham Young, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Nevada.
"Because of the World Series, our season had run long and I was getting a late start," she says. "Then I got in contact with Purdue, which has a very good graduate program in pharmacy. Fortunately, they had a scholarship opening. I know it's not the West Coast, but one of my friends, Alexia Clay, also left Tennessee at the same time and is now playing at Notre Dame, so there would always be someone close by, if I needed her, to make the transition smoother.
"It has been really tough leaving home. I'm the second oldest child and my older brother Lance went to the University of Hawaii, so I was the first to come to the mainland. The fact that I have been so busy with athletics and academics has helped take my mind off missing things at home, like family dinners."
Although she wasn't playing last spring, Horiuchi was a fixture on the bench at all Purdue home games and as many away games as her academic schedule would allow.
"Anything I could pick up helped, more so the habits of different batters," says Horiuchi, who is majoring in movement and sports sciences. "It's easier when you remove yourself and observe how teams, especially the pitchers, react to different situations. Sometimes batters can read those emotions.
"It was the first time I've had to sit since I started playing softball in seventh grade. But it was a good opportunity to focus more on my hitting and improve my overall game before coming back."
And as indicated by this year's batting average, Horiuchi has taken full advantage of the time off to straighten out some hitting flaws from the last time she played competitively.
"As the leadoff hitter, you always want to have a good at-bat and set the tone for the rest of the game," she says. "Of course I always want to get on base, but even if I don't, I want to make sure it's the best at-bat I could have done at the time.
"My problem in my sophomore year was I went up to the plate looking for a certain pitch and I would fall behind in the count early. Now I have a better mental approach and I'm swinging at strikes earlier in the count. I've learned not to wait on the perfect pitch."
According to the Purdue third baseman, the biggest difference she has found between the SEC and Big Ten is there are more slap hitters in the SEC.
"They are two of the elite conferences in the nation and there are top-notch programs in both," she says. "Both conferences have some very good pitchers."
Horiuchi says Purdue is one of those programs knocking on the door to become an elite team in the Big Ten.
"We've had a couple of rocky games where we could have competed better," she says. "Knowing we can compete with the top teams is definitely a confidence booster. It's just a matter of being consistent."