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White Sox star smashes studies out of the park

White Sox star Lara Andrews struggled through school, but thanks to the opportunities arising from an outstanding softball career, she's about to complete her doctorate. Sarah Cowley reports. 

Raised by her grandparents in the Lower Hutt suburb of Petone, Lara Andrews grew up bilingual in Maori and English. Throughout her school years, she found reading and writing English a great challenge.

Of Ngati Ruanui descent, Andrews, admits she naturally gravitated to sport, because it was an easier environment for her to learn in. “Anything I could play to get out of class, I’d put my hand up to get a day off school,” the 29-year-old says.

Although she initially wanted to be a Silver Fern, it was softball that won her heart, and has undoubtedly shaped her into the go-getting athlete and academic she is today.

For someone who found school so difficult, Andrews has gone on to become a Master of science in human development and family studies, and will soon complete her PhD from the University of Delaware, researching parental involvement in organised sport and how it affects children’s confidence.

“I’m going to really challenge myself and try and get my doctorate,” she says, back at home in Lower Hutt. “This helps prove to people that if you set your mind to something, you can achieve great things.”

The former White Sox captain, and the first New Zealand woman to play in the US Pro Fastpitch league, isn’t exactly sure where her studies will take her next.

"I’ll wait for that to unfold. My main priority is to make sure I'm doing work which reinforces the value of sport for our young people," she says.

Last week, her master’s thesis was accepted for publication in the International Journal of Sport and Society.

As far as softball goes, Andrews would love to play at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The White Sox will play in a qualifying tournament for the Oceania Pacific region next year.

At home, this this year’s New Zealand women’s player of the year will continue to play for the Te Aroha Club team based in Lower Hutt.

She’ll also coach the Hutt Valley under-23 women’s side, with another former White Sox captain,Kiri Shaw, as well as the under-11 Te Aroha boys’ team.

Andrews was about the boys’ age when she headed along to Fraser Park in Lower Hutt, to watch her older sister play softball. That particular day, her sister’s team was short a player so she raced over to the sidelines and roped nine-year-old Andrews into getting out onto the diamond for the first time.

“I was like ‘I don’t even know how to throw’, but my Mum really encouraged me and I ended up playing the rest of the season. I’ve played ever since.”

One experience led to another for Andrews and, in 2005, the young outfielder got a call from the White Sox coach at the time, Mike Walsh, asking her to trial for the national team.

At 15 years of age, Andrews became the youngest player to debut for the White Sox, touring Japan for World Cup qualification. It’s a feat that hasn’t been surpassed.

On reflection, Andrews says, while it was a huge goal for her, she didn’t realise how that selection would impact her life.

“From that moment on, everything I did and everywhere I went, I was viewed as a New Zealand representative – on and off the diamond. I don’t believe I was ready mentally for that experience,” she says.

So she took a year off from the White Sox, and told her supportive whanau that she’d wanted to play for New Zealand her whole life, “So now what do I do?” While she still played sport during her break, she says she had “teenage stuff” going on and needed to focus on other things.

It was missing out on the White Sox team for the 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament that made Andrews realise she wanted back in. She returned to her Hutt Valley franchise, which enabled her to be selected for New Zealand again.

At this year’s world championships in Chiba, Japan, Andrews earned her 55th cap for the White Sox during her fifth world championship appearance.

After secondary school at Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt, Andrews fitted her softball in around a fulltime job in data entry and administration in Wellington.

After a year of inserting numbers from a spreadsheet into a computer, she thought there had to be more to life.

She figured out that she actually enjoyed school, and definitely liked softball. So with the assistance of Google, she discovered how she could potentially combine the two in the United States college system.

It was 2008, and Andrews knew nothing about potential scholarships, but she quickly put together the necessary requirements to apply - including getting her sister to film footage of her on the diamond on her “flip phone”.

Itawamba Community College in Tupelo, Mississippi, took a chance on Andrews, giving her a minor two-year scholarship, and the girl from Petone packed her bags with US$250 in her wallet, not knowing if she would ever return to New Zealand.

Although she’d barely passed high school, Andrews thrived in the US system, getting all A’s in her first year - and taking the softball team to the state championship. “More doors opened for me because of my high grade average and statistics on the diamond. All of a sudden I became a hot recruit for bigger schools,” she says.

A full four-year scholarship was offered to Andrews at division one school Delaware. There wasn’t a lot of spare change to go around in her household growing up, so Andrews was astounded by the value of the scholarship.

“I couldn’t believe that this scholarship was worth US$47,000 per year, and all they were asking me to do in return was to play softball,” she says.

She excelled as the captain of Delaware’s softball team, making it into the top ten in the history of the college in home runs a season, and delivering over 100 hits. She continued to juggle her studies with international commitments for the White Sox throughout her time as a student.

After a successful collegiate career, Andrews was picked up by the Pennsylvania Rebellions to play in the National Pro Fastpitch league in 2014. It meant she was able to continue to play softball and study for her doctorate.

“I felt really proud to be the first New Zealand woman to play professionally in the States,” she says.

Last year Andrews moved back home to the Hutt Valley to finish her PhD and grow her networks in New Zealand.

She’s made a big impact on the national softball scene since her return. This season she captained Hutt Valley to their first national fastpitch championship title in nine years, then led Te Aroha to win the national interclub title - where she was the tournament’s top batter and most valuable player.

Andrews now fills a number of ambassador roles, including for Sport NZ, inspiring the next generation of Kiwi kids who want to play sport to get out of class.

“I’ve just tried to do my best at everything I’ve had a go at,” she says. “I’m just a normal person that just gave it a shot.”

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