Change for the better

Deep down, she could feel something was wrong.

Though playing softball for perennial powerhouse University of Louisville was a dream come true for Rachel Houck, the reality was not as she had envisioned all those years ago when she was first learning to swing a bat.

There was, she discovered, an important element missing. As the winds of change began to blow through Louisville, carrying away her favorite coach after her freshman season, Houck discovered what it was.

She wanted to be a Hoosier again.

The 2013 Mt. Vernon graduate hoped to enlist somewhere closer to home. Somewhere she had friends and family nearby.

That is when she decided on Ball State, a school that heavily recruited Houck out of high school and remained interested in securing her services when she began searching for a new start.

The change of scenery has paid off in a big way. After hitting just .083 (1 for 12) in her first and only season at Louisville, Houck is now flashing the same form that tormented Hancock County pitcher, for four years. This season, the former three-time county player of the year is hitting a robust .351 with a couple of home runs and owns one of the team’s best on-base percentages at .385.

Houck attributed her regained form to her newfound comfort.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself (at Louisville) thinking I had to get a hit every time I was up to bat,” she said after the visiting Cardinals’ 9-3 win Saturday against Ohio University, in which she laced a pinch-hit single and scored a run.

“I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m always put in RBI situations or other tough spots when we need a run. That happened to me last year, too, but I’ve done a much better job this year.”

Houck has embraced her off-the-bench role this season for the Cardinals, who are a week away from the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The transition from superstar slugger to part-time player has not been easy, however.

The two-time first team all-state infielder who launched a Marauders’ record 40 career home runs has had to adjust to the challenges of pinch-hitting, a first in her illustrious career.

“You are playing against teams full of players who were the best players in their high school, conference and state,” said the sweet-swinging lefty, who has started five of Ball State’s 50 games. “So, I’ve just tried to accept (my role) and make the most of it. I just try to do whatever my team needs from me.”

A good attitude to have, her father said, and one Ken Houck largely credits Julie Shelton for cultivating. Ken Houck is not sure how Rachel would have reacted to the curveballs life has thrown at his daughter if not for the time she spent playing under the former Mt. Vernon girls basketball coach.

Shelton, currently a Butler University assistant coach after stepping down at Mt. Vernon in 2014, constantly challenged Rachel to become a stronger athlete psychologically.

“She told me when Rachel was very, very young, ‘Rachel is a great athlete, but she has to get mentally tougher,’” Ken Houck recalled. “The years with coach Shelton weren’t easy. I remember more than a few times picking her up after practice, and she was crying. But she needed that. Those four years were the best thing that ever happened to her as an athlete.”

Rachel Houck keeps in contact with Shelton to this day, as well as with her former Marauders’ softball coach, Mike McGill.

In addition to back-to-back sectional titles with the softball team in 2012 and 2013, Houck helped the Mt. Vernon basketball team win a Class 3A state title in 2013. The starting guard earned the IHSAA’s Patricia L. Roy Mental Attitude Award following the championship win against Hamilton Heights for demonstrating excellence in scholarship, leadership and athletics.

“Rachel was an extremely competitive and smart player,” Shelton said. “She was an extension of the coach on the floor.

“She had heart and so many intangibles that you can’t teach.”

McGill, who retired as Mt. Vernon’s softball head coach after last season, often attends Houck’s collegiate contests and has also been instrumental in helping her return to form, according to her dad.

“Louisville was kind of a foreign area for us,” said Ken Houck, who has also served as Rachel’s life-long hitting coach. “We never really fit in. Half that team played on the same Louisville Slugger travel team, and all of those parents sat together. We just never got to feeling at home there. “

Though she has a vast network of support and has handled playing the unheralded role well, Rachel Houck does not plan on filling that position for much longer.

The Cardinals (28-22 overall, 13-4 Mid-American Conference) have a pair of regular-season games left, Saturday and Sunday at Miami (Ohio), before opening the MAC Tournament on May 6 in Akron. Ball State has won 14 of its past 18 games, including a 19-9 win against in-state rival Indiana University April 21.

The win against the Hoosiers included a pinch-hit single by Houck.

The self-professed perfectionist has grander ambitions in mind for the near future.

“I’ve learned to be more positive,” Rachel Houck said of the trials of the last two seasons. “I just have more confidence and feel more relaxed.”

Houck has designs of becoming an every-day starter next season as a junior, as well as becoming the most feared bat in the Cardinals’ lineup.

In other words, she intends to get back to old habits.

Rachel Houck

Name: Rachel Houck

Age: 20

Hometown: Greenfield

Family: Parents, Ken and Mary Houck; brother, K.C

High school: Mt. Vernon (2013)

College: Ball State University; transfered from Louisville after one year.

Grade: Sophomore

Sport: Softball

College stats: 2015 (through Sunday): Hitting .351 with two home runs and a double … 3-for-3 in stolen base attempts … On-base percentage of .385. … Has seven RBI and six runs scored. 

High school accolades: Earned four letters in softball for coach Mike McGill at Mt. Vernon High School …  two-time first-team all-state selection in softball … three-time Hancock County Player of the Year … 2013 District Four Player of the Year … three time Indy Super Star Super Team selection … four-time All-Hoosier Heritage Conference and All-County selection … posted a .438 batting average as a senior, while finishing her career as the program’s all-time home run leader at 40 … played travel ball for the Indiana Xtreme … earned four letters in basketball … 2013 Class 3A Mental Attitude Award recipient … three-time All-Hoosier Heritage Conference selection. … Won Class 3A basketball championshing in 2013 as Marauders’ starting point guard. 

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