Play like your hair’s on fire. It was a simple command that coach John Szefc communicated to his Virginia Tech baseball team. It was a command that redshirt junior Luke Horanski took literally and figuratively.
After a tough series loss to Virginia, Horanski and a few other teammates dyed their hair “on fire” with an orangish-blonde dye to switch something up with the team’s mojo. What Horanski doesn’t have to change is the offensive production he’s provided in his first year with the Hokies. He’s been the spark plug igniting the lineup with a .311 batting average and team-leading 10 doubles.
Horanski, a cannonball of energy (literally, check out the video), was exactly the guy to start something like the dyed hair, and he’s gone through quite the journey to get to this point.
The Canadian native never played an inning of high school baseball. Instead, Horanski played for the Langley Blaze as part of the British Columbia Premier Baseball League. More notably, the hard-hitting catcher was a member of Canada’s Junior National Team under the direction of coach Greg Hamilton.
“It helped me a ton playing against professional players at a young age when we were 17, 18 years old,” Horanski said. “Just getting that kind of exposure to good players right away. Going out there every day and competing and battling. Greg [Hamilton] was a great coach, a great manager. One of my favorites ever actually. We learned a lot of life lessons from him. It wasn’t all about baseball all the time. A lot of the times it was life stuff, and I think that’s going to pay dividends for the program for years to come.”
With the Junior National Team, Horanski was tested against some of the best players that Canada had to offer. For the most part, they were minor league type players. On one occasion, though, he did get the chance to battle the best of the best. In fact, he singled off former Toronto Blue Jay Brandon Morrow, who current plays for the Chicago Cubs.
“We did actually play one game against the Blue Jays. It was our Canada Day thing where we did face a big league club,” Horanski said. “Jose Bautista, Aaron Sanchez, you see all those guys on TV and obviously it’s really cool. It’s a lot of fun and it prepares you big time because the stage is never too big then. You’ve played against literally the best players in the world, so when you come to bat and you’re playing in college, you’ve already been there. You can have confidence and slow yourself down and be like, ‘OK, if I can get a hit off a big leaguer then there’s nobody in the country…’ It’s just that inner confidence that you kind of have behind it.”
Heading into college, Horanski was ahead of the curve. He started 11 games in 2015 behind the plate as a true freshman at Creighton University and batted .242 despite missing the back half of the season with a concussion. The slugger appeared poised for a breakthrough in his sophomore season under the lights at TD Ameritrade Park, which seats over 24,000 people and hosts the College World Series each year. That was until an offseason injury in the weight room caused Horanski to need surgery on his back.
“I learned a lot from it and switched up my training style now,” Horanski said. “It was a thing that I’m very happy honestly that it happened because it taught me a lot about myself. When the game gets taken away from you like that, when you’re struggling on the field, it just makes you understand that it could be a heck of a lot worse. I’m just really happy to be out there every day.”
After a season where he was forced to sit out and recover, Horanski decided to leave Creighton and attend Cisco College in Cisco, Texas for the 2017 season. In his one year at Cisco, the catcher earned First Team All-Conference honors, hitting .356 with a .500 on-base percentage. Maybe more than anything, he experienced the grunt work of playing for a junior college.
“With myself coming from Creighton, there was TD Ameritrade, all the glitz and the glamour kind of thing, and then you go to a JUCO in west Texas,” Horanski said. “It’s just grinders getting it done. Everybody knows why they’re there. Everybody has their own story. Everybody at a junior college in one facet or another had something go wrong. You can kind of bond over that, whether it was grades in high school, an injury, they maybe didn’t get along with a coach at an old program, or something like that. When you can bond with your teammates like that, I think it makes the experience that much more enjoyable.”
So how does a guy bounce around from Canada to Nebraska to Texas and finally end up in Blacksburg, Virginia of all places? All it took was one simple phone call.
“I was doing a lot of stuff in the fall in terms of recruitment. Coach [Kurt] Elbin called me right after the draft,” Horanski said. “That didn’t work out last year. He called me 20 minutes after and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to come play for us?’ It kind of kicked off from there. It’s been nothing but great ever since. I came on a visit, met coach Szefc. The staff was the big thing for me. You see the facilities here with a brand new ballpark, brand new scoreboard, all that kind of stuff is great, but when you’re making a decision for your life I think you really have to make the decision on who you’re around.
“To get back to a place like Virginia Tech was a dream come true for me. I’ve been nothing but blessed to be back here. I love it here. This is my favorite place in the world.”
Virginia Tech coaches, players and fans certainly love having Horanski here as well. He’s gone back and forth between being a catcher or designated hitter for the Hokies, having started 30 of the 32 games, mostly from the three-hole in the lineup. The Canadian sensation has hit three home runs, along with 21 RBIs and a very high .446 on-base percentage in large part due to a team-leading 20 walks.
“The big thing that coach Elbin’s preaching about is just attacking,” Horanski said. “For every hitter up and down the lineup we just want to attack fastballs early and good things will happen when we attack. That’s the big thing for me, getting on fastballs, but taking my walks as well. I tend to get walked quite a bit. It’s just a balance between swinging early and swinging at good pitches and taking your walks when you get them.”
Horanski talked about his dreams of returning to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, this time for the College World Series. He talked about an ACC Tournament appearance being the first rung of the ladder for this Virginia Tech team. But in this moment, Horanski will continue to be the fun-loving, big personality teammate who’s playing like his hair’s on fire for the Hokies.