CEDAR FALLS — Alyssa Buchanan lifted weights in high school.
However, the Northern Iowa senior pitcher/designated hitter admits that, back then, she was as serious about lifting as a teenager who says they will finish their chores in a few minutes and a hour later the dishes are still dirty.
Buchanan was an elite softball player back home in Fishers, Ind., leading Hamilton Southeastern to tremendous success, including a Class 4A state championship in 2010. Additionally, Buchanan played on some of the best travel ball teams in the Midwest, including the Chicago-based Illinois Chill Gold.
It was in her travels that Northern Iowa coach Ryan Jacobs first saw Buchanan at a huge national softball event in Colorado.
As luck has it, UNI was the small-school, mid-major type program Buchanan wanted for her college experience. It was a perfect match and continued to be despite physical ailments that began to bother her.
Buchanan began to feel soreness in her pitching arm and numbness in her fingers. Eventually, she was diagnosed with neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome.
“I never lifted in high school ... I did but not seriously ... and in college within our program we did,” Buchanan said. “What we found is my muscles developed super quick and my body couldn’t catch up. That is what led to the diagnosis.”
There are three kinds of thoracic outlet syndrome and the kind Buchanan was diagnosed with is characterized by the compression of the brachial plexus, a network of nerves that come from your spinal cord and control muscle movements and sensation in the shoulder, arm and hand.
“What we learned is it is genetic and a lot of people are predisposed to it through genetics,” UNI head coach Ryan Jacobs said. “But where it shows up most is with athletes because they use and develop their upper body more.
“There are lot of people who are predisposed to it and it never shows up because they don’t lift, aren’t in athletics.”
To alleviate Buchanan’s issue, doctors performed a surgery going through her arm pit, removing a portion of her first rib and separating her minor pectoralis muscle.
“It’s actually pretty cool because I have three pectoral muscles and everybody else has just two,” Buchanan said with a laugh.
Though she was still able to compete on the field, the injury limited her for much of her freshman and sophomore years. But with it now fully repaired, Buchanan has become a major player for the Panthers.
She broke out last year, batting .363 with six home runs and 28 runs batted in, while winning 16 games and posting a 3.53 earn run average.
Buchanan, who recently received her degree in Movement and Exercise Science with a minor in coaching, saved her best play for her last season and is a huge reason why UNI won the Missouri Valley Conference title and is the top seed for this week’s MVC tournament in Normal, Ill. The Panthers will face an opponent yet to be determined Friday at 4 p.m.
For her efforts, Buchanan was named MVC pitcher of the year Wednesday, following a season that saw her go 13-2 in the circle with a 1.52 ERA. She also batted .306 with three home runs and 15 RBIs.
“She kind of broke out last year and really did a great job for us offensively and in the circle. This year, she built upon her junior season and went to a different level,” Jacobs said. “She’s also been a good leader for the young team we have, showing them what we do and why we do it.
“That leadership role isn’t something she has had to do before, but I think it accelerated her development, too.”
Buchanan’s role as a leader on and off the field this year while leading UNI to a conference championship is a key component of her story. But it would be wrong not to tell exactly how she landed in Cedar Falls.
That first time Jacobs saw Buchanan, she was pitching in the all-star portion of the tournament and her catcher just happened to be fellow UNI senior and current Panther catcher Anna Varriano.
“Coach likes to tell that story,” Buchanan said. “I thought she was my opponent, but he tells us she was catching for me. It’s kind of a crazy story.”
Then, after UNI began showing interest in Buchanan, she arrived on campus and was wearing a UNI softball shirt.
“I was given some advice when I started taking my visits that you should wear something from that school,” Buchanan said. “What kind of impression would I make If I was wearing something from Iowa or Iowa State?
“UNI is what I was looking for. I fell in love on my visit. This year we have an amazing group of girls who are passionate for the sport. The environment and culture is different than any other year and I don’t want the season to end.”