Horiuchi's the name, and softball's her game
By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Leila Wai
Liane Horiuchi might just be known as that "girl from Hawai'i," but coaches still took notice of her play.
The 2005 Kamehameha Schools graduate is the first softball player from Hawai'i to play at Tennessee and in the Southeastern Conference, where she was named to the SEC All-Freshman team.
"I just wanted to go away and I guess make a name for myself and represent my family and the state well," Horiuchi said of her decision to play for the Volunteers. "I know the SEC is a tough league, but whatever you do, you just have to try your best.
"I think everybody refers to me as the girl from Hawai'i. I don't even think they know my name."
They do now after the second baseman batted .307 (39 for 127), with three doubles, three home runs and 14 RBIs, playing in 58 games with 57 starts.
Horiuchi said she was "thrilled" with the SEC honor, which was voted on by league coaches. "Going into the season, that was one of my goals. But I still remembered to focus on working hard and trying to get better. If I did that, things would go my way."
The Volunteers (53-9), ranked seventh in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25, host an NCAA regional this weekend that includes Tennessee Tech, Virginia Tech and Louisville.
Horiuchi knew her freshman year would be an adjustment, but wanted to make sure to absorb as much as she could. She learned to be mentally tough and confident.
"It's very tough for an Island girl to come this far from home," said co-head coach Ralph Weekly, a former U.S. Air Force commander who was stationed at Hickam and lived in Mililani. "She started for us from day one; she's everything a coach could ask for. She earned it during preseason. She's got very soft hands, she's a really good infielder, and she's been taught well, playing at Kamehameha and Mililani Prep.
"One thing about Hawai'i coaches is they prepare their kids well fundamentally."
Weekly said Horiuchi was naturally gifted when she arrived at Tennessee, but she worked hard to improve her skills.
"I just used (the coaches), asking them to work a little extra with me to help myself get better," she said. "My teammates, everybody is awesome, and they push you to get to their level."
Weekly's connection with Hawai'i helped him recruit Horiuchi, who played for Weekly's friend, Glenn Jicha, on the Mililani Prep club team.
"She has the warrior spirit," Weekly said. "She's really tough."
He said that tenacity helped Horiuchi's transition to the SEC, which he said is the second toughest conference behind the Pac-10.
It's not the only adjustment she's made while in Knoxville.
"When it first got cold here, she saw her breath for the first time, and she was walking about campus breathing out," Weekly said.
Horiuchi laughed upon hearing that story.
"I'm kind of embarrassed that everyone talks about it," she said. "My family came to watch me in a tournament in Las Vegas and they were all doing the same thing I did."
Weekly also recalled a road trip to South Carolina, where on the return trip, it snowed.
"Liane was just sitting in the front of the bus just watching everything, while the rest of the team was sleeping in the back," he said.
Horiuchi said during subsequent snowfalls, her "teammates would invite me to go sledding," which were some of the "best nights of my whole life. I don't like the cold that much, but Tennessee gives you a lot of gear to handle it."
Horiuchi also spent some time with Jesse Mahelona, a defensive tackle from Kealakehe.
"We had a couple nights where we cooked lau lau and kalua pig," Horiuchi said. "It's nice that someone else is going through the same thing. If they can do it, you can do it, too."
Weekly said it is that positive attitude that shines through.
"She's a person who represents Hawai'i well," Weekly said. "Just because she's such a good student and such a good person. She never gets in trouble.
"I feel very lucky to be her coach. She always has a smile on her face."
Earlier this year Horiuchi was named to the Thornton Center Honor Roll and the Dean's List for the fall semester after earning a 3.88 GPA in Arts & Sciences.
"My grandparents always stressed academics," she said. "They would say, 'you're just using softball to get an education and a degree.' "
Weekly, who has been sharing head coaching duties with his wife, Karen, since 2001, said they enjoy making recruiting trips to Hawai'i each year.
"We would like to have a lot of Hawai'i players, but you only have so many scholarships," he said. "I'm a haole who really likes Hawai'i. I think the people are great, and I think Liane knew my wife and I really loved the Hawai'i culture."
Reach Leila Wai at email@example.com.