When Catherine Horner first picked up the game of softball she planned on leading defenses as a pitcher. These days she's catching pitchers, but is still anchoring the La Cañada High softball team's defense.
Horner first had to be bribed to get behind the plate, as her dad paid her to catch her older sister during her pitching lessons.
"I have grown to love it, you're involved in every pitch," Horner said. "It doesn't matter if you get the glory or not, I am always involved and it never gets boring for me."
Most catchers don't get gobs of glory, but it's impossible to overlook Horner's solid defensive play behind the dish paired with her prowess with a bat at it.
It's that total package that Horner, who's headed to play for the University of Tulsa next year, presents that forced La Cañada Coach KC Mathews to go against what he thought was his better judgment of not starting a freshman at catcher.
Mathews had already done so the year before Horner began her freshman year with the Spartans when he put Anna Edwards at catcher in her debut season.
"I wasn't sure until I met Anna that I wanted a freshman to be the quarterback of our defense," said Mathews, who moved Edwards over to shortstop to start Horner at catcher as a freshman despite Edwards batting .427 the year before. "That's the impression that Cat made. Anna was probably the best catcher in the league and to move her took some doing, and then Catherine was the best catcher in our league and has been since."
Steady improvement has been a mark of the Spartans since Horner joined the team to play alongside such players as Edwards, Lauren O'Leary and Lauren Cox, as La Cañada has been Rio Hondo League champions all four years with Horner, which ended a five-year drought.
In Horner's freshman year — when she started on the CIF Southern Section Division II-A champion La Cañada girls' volleyball team — the Spartans went 19-8, 11-1 in league and got bounced in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs. The next year they went 25-5 (10-2) and advanced to the semifinals before they won it all with a 26-3 (12-0) record last season.
Mathews, whose Spartans sit at 21-4-1 (10-1-1) entering the playoffs this year, said Horner's leadership, work ethic and skill set have been a tremendous resource over the past four years.
It all starts with Horner's prowess with a bat. The senior has improved her offensive numbers each season, as she's hitting .450 (36 for 80) after posting batting averages of .296 as a freshman, .365 as a sophomore and .421 as a junior.
The senior also owns or shares team highs this year in RBI (28), runs scored (24), doubles (12), home runs (four) and triples (two) to go along with seven stolen bases.
"Not only defensively is she great, but offensively she is, too," Cox said. "It's really nice to have someone come out and work so hard. She contributes every game in some way and I can always count on her. Whether the team's up or down, you can always count on her coming through."
As with some catchers, defense isn't sacrificed with Horner's offense. She has a perfect fielding percentage in 278 total chances so far this year with 11 assists.
"It's the best thing [having Horner as a catcher]," Cox said. "She's like a solid wall behind me and honestly, no matter what pitch I throw I know she's going to get it. Whether it's in the dirt or way above her head, she always finds a way to catch it."
While Cox doesn't let too many runners on base with 51 hits, 33 walks, seven hit batters and 254 strikeouts in 156 1/3 innings pitched this year, Horner makes sure whoever does doesn't get a free base with an arm most teams have learned not to test.
"I want people to steal, it's boring if they don't," said Horner, who has caught 55% (43 of 78) of the runners who've attempted to steal on her in four years at La Cañada and hasn't had a full season with a percentage less than 61% since her freshman campaign (39%). "I want to see if I can pick them off. If they get the steal good for them, if I get them out good for me."
It gives the speedy Spartans, who have 42 stolen bases in 53 attempts this year, a huge advantage over their opposition.
"The fact that we take teams' speed away from them simply by having Catherine back there, that takes away a very potent weapon from a lot of teams and she's seen some of the best," Mathews said. "It's a game of inches so when you can take inches away from them you gain inches. She doesn't let anything by her and once you get on base you're staying there because teams respect her arm."
Perhaps the most impressive stat Horner holds is the fact she's only given up 11 passed balls in four years with La Cañada, while not seeing one go by yet this season or last, which is easier said than done when catching someone like Cox, a rise-ball pitcher with a ton of velocity.
Horner credits those early pitching lessons for developing her ability to keep the ball in front of her at all times.
"My big sister kind of tested me a lot," she said. "Lauren always hits her spots so she makes it easy on me. Her ball moves a ton so I definitely have to keep my eye on it, but she makes it easier on me."