By Ian Shogren
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
When Texas softball’s Randel Leahy stepped foot on campus in the fall of 2014, she arrived as a heralded catching/outfield prospect with numerous awards in tow from a standout high school career.
The one thing she didn’t have when she arrived? Experience at third base.
With UT’s infield unsettled early on during the 2015 campaign and returners playing out-of-position in some instances, Texas head coach Connie Clark and her staff made the decision to try the ultra-athletic Leahy at the “hot corner.”
That desire to get the Norco, Calif., product on the field in any way possible paid off well for the Horns, as she proved up to the daunting challenge of filling a major need at third while allowing Texas to stabilize its defense.
At the beginning of the campaign, Leahy really had no set place in the line-up or on the field. She made a couple of starts behind the plate against Stanford and Colorado State, but mainly spent the first few games of her career coming off the bench late in games, something she had not been accustomed to during her career.
“I knew the coaches wanted me on the field, but I wasn’t really sure where they wanted me,” Leahy said. “I just wanted to help the team in any way possible. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t really get much playing time. In the dugout, I’m always wanting to be in the game. I finally got my opportunity and took advantage of it.”
That opportunity came in the Longhorns 16th game of the season against Dartmouth during the Texas Invitational as Clark penciled Leahy in as the starter at third base. The belief was that her mindset and athleticism would help her overcome a lack of experience at the position.
“Randel has a real ability to focus, and that comes from her being a catcher,” Clark commented. “She really looks at the big picture and doesn’t just get consumed by what she’s doing, but with what everyone else around her is doing. (The coaching staff) kept saying we had to find a way to get her in the lineup every day.”
The decision to put her in the lineup paid immediate dividends against the Big Green as Leahy went 1-for-3 at the plate while registering a clutch walk-off double with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to lead Texas past Dartmouth, 1-0.
She continued to produce after becoming a regular in the order, batting a blistering .407 over a 10-game stretch from the walk-off heroics against Dartmouth through March 15 at Arkansas. During that time, Leahy recorded six of her 14 total extra base hits and eight RBIs, while slugging a team-high .778. For the season, the Big 12 Conference All-Freshman Team selection hit at a .291 clip with 24 runs scored, seven doubles, two triples, five home runs and 23 RBIs. She also managed six multi-hit and five multi-RBI efforts and registered her first career multi-HR game by blasting a pair of big flies during a rout of UT Arlington on April 15.
Although hitting had long been a strength for Leahy, getting acclimated to a position she wasn’t accustomed to playing was a definite challenge. Especially at third base, easily one of the toughest defensive assignments on the diamond.
“It was different because I’ve always primarily been a catcher,” Leahy said on playing the ‘hot corner.’ “I worked really hard at it, but it’s a difficult position to play. The reaction time is the biggest difference, and it’s unbelievable, especially playing top teams. You just don’t know when the ball is going to be hit at you. I really had to take in other people’s opinions and advice. A lot of people helped me.”
One of those helpers was Texas junior second baseman Stephanie Ceo, who started the season at third but moved back to her more natural position once Leahy transitioned into her new everyday slot. Ceo had a good idea that Leahy’s athleticism and ability would translate into success for the freshman.
“We just let her know that she had the skill set to play the position and that we had her back no matter what,” Ceo commented. “She has such athleticism. Third is a hard spot to play. It is a hot corner, so to just keep feeding her confidence really helped throughout the year.”
Not only did Leahy competently fill Texas’ defensive need, she also evolved into the clean-up hitter in the lineup late in the campaign, moving into position right behind the top three hitters on the Longhorns’ roster in overall batting average.
“When I first moved (in the line-up), I was pressing a little too hard to do something different, but I went back to what I was doing at the beginning of the season,” Leahy commented on the challenges of the clean-up spot. “That’s really what I needed to do to. It comes easier when you don’t try as hard.”
In the same way she had an idea that Leahy would have success at third, Ceo knew that Leahy’s mental toughness and approach at the plate would translate to success hitting higher in lineup.
“She’s a competitor and wants to be on the field and in the lineup,” Ceo said. “Even as a freshman, Randel was ready to step up and start. Just having that mental mindset of being prepared to step on the field and take both a position and a spot in the lineup really set her up to be our four hitter and take over the hot corner. She possesses such a strong mental game, and that really helped prepare her to play at this level.”
Leahy’s athleticism, mental approach and focus are just a few of the many reasons that Clark believes that “she is going to be someone who produces over the long haul here at Texas. She’s just tremendous.”
If you’re a Texas softball fan, that production out of Leahy should be fun to watch over her next three seasons in the Burnt Orange & White.