May 11, 2012
By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Ashley Hansen has always been a step ahead of the competition.
"I grew up playing at the field," said the senior shortstop on the nationally-ranked Stanford softball team. "I was that kid that begged my dad to go play catch with me while my sisters' games were going on. I finally talked my way into starting club ball and played traveling softball at the age of six."
A native of Chandler, Ariz., Hansen was named the USA Softball National Player of the Year in 2011, a first for a Cardinal player. Starting all 59 games at shortstop, she batted a Pac-10 Conference-leading .495, collecting 25 doubles and 95 hits. Hansen posted a .558 on-base percentage and .797 slugging percentage, and was the third-toughest player in the nation to strikeout. Her average, slugging percentage and hits all set single season school records.
"First and foremost, she's just an outstanding person," said Stanford head coach John Rittman. "I've said this a number of times, but when Ashley came to Stanford I said to myself, `I'm going to enjoy every day that I get to coach her because players like her don't come around very often.' ''
The 5-foot-7 Hansen can do it all.
"Her work ethic is outstanding," said Rittman, now in his 16th year on The Farm. "She's dedicated to her game but also to making the team better. She has the ability to hit for power; hit for average; and she's fast and versatile at the plate. She can slap and bunt. Defensively, you can play her anywhere on the field. She's just a great softball player."
Entering this week's final regular season series at Utah, Hanson was batting .351 with slugging percentage of .649 and on-base percentage of .493. While the numbers are down from last year, it's hardly surprising considering the Pac-12 Conference is the strongest in the country and opposing pitchers often pitch around her.
"I'm getting pitched to differently," she said. "It's a good challenge. Now I'm enjoying every last minute that I take the field."
Hansen admits she might have pressed earlier in the season to live up to last year. Not now.
"I set the highest goals for myself than anybody," said Hansen. "Nobody expects more than I do. I definitely came in with high expectations and maybe put a little too much pressure on myself. It comes to a point in this game where this game not only takes a lot of skill, it also takes a certain amount of luck. When I'm hitting the ball and it's going right to people, you just have to tip your hat."
Senior outfielder Sarah Hassman said Hansen hasn't changed.
"After seeing Ashley hit a home run in her first collegiate at-bat, I knew she was a special player," Hassman said. "She is an extremely humble person both on and off the field. Her presence on the field definitely impacts everyone around her."
"She's such a pleasure to coach," he said. "She never has a bad day. She's got this energy and that's contagious."
Hansen grew up the youngest of four daughters and all played college softball. While she also competed in volleyball and loved to snowboard, softball was her passion. So much so, that her father, Kevin, tried to trick her into doing other things.
"A couple times I tested her a little bit and said, "Hey, if you want to take some time off from softball we can go water skiing, get a boat, or do this and that," he said. "I did it to see if she was that dedicated and serious, and I found out she was."
Hansen played for two club teams growing up, the latter the Worth Firecrackers Gold in Southern California until her sophomore year of high school.
"Once again, I talked my way into playing because of the opposition and coaches," she smiled. "The things I learned in that program made it an easy transition to play collegiate softball."
Kevin, who runs his own wholesale and retail car business, and his wife Ginger, a homemaker, put plenty of miles on the family car driving from Arizona to Southern California for games.
"We were on the road a lot on weekends," Kevin said. "We'd take off on Friday and come back Sunday night or Monday morning. It usually took about six hours each way."
Hansen, a big country western fan, made the most of it. She led her club teams to national runner-up finishes in 2005 and 2006, and an ASA national championship in 2007. She also competed for Team USA in 2009 and slugged a grand slam against Australia that lifted her squad into the championship game.
While some were surprised when Hansen decided to attend Stanford, for her, it was a no-brainer.
"I laugh every time," she said. "What does this school not have to offer you? I always wanted to get out of the state and experience something different and challenge myself academically."
Hansen is majoring in management, science and engineering and will graduate next month. She has already accepted a job as a development associate at a start-up company called Inflection in Redwood Shores.
But first, she would like to win an NCAA Championship. Last year, the then-10th-ranked Cardinal reached the super regionals for the second time in Hansen's caereer. They wound up traveling to Alabama, where they won the opening game, but dropped the next two.
"This year's team has gone through a ton of adversity, probably more than any team I've been on," said Hansen, referring to an early season-ending knee injury to Hassman. "It's all about peaking at the right time. It's anybody's ballgame on any day. This team is prepared for anything."
Her favorite part of softball?
"I love hitting," Hansen said. "It's a good stress reliever during finals. I'll just go out and hit on my own. The adrenaline rush you get after making an amazing defensive play is hands-down one of the best feelings ever."
So is playing with her teammates.
"I spend more time with my team than I do with my family," she said.
More than anything, Hansen has tried to help Stanford carry on its tradition of being one of the elite softball programs in the country.
"There have been so many great athletes to come through this program before me," said Hansen. "They really showed you the good and the bad and how to wear this uniform with pride. Players like Jessica Mendoza and Lauren Lappin. Those are the people I got to know and how I wanted this team to represent Stanford. The passion they have for the game. Knowing that just because we are strong academically, that we can compete on the field. There's no reason we can't do both."
No matter what happens in the Women's College World Series, Hansen has raised the bar for future Cardinal teams. Only one other position player has received the USA Softball National Player of the Year Award.
"It's a big milestone and a big accomplishment," Hansen said. "Just means day in and day out for an entire season I was able to show up and perform for my team. It is surreal."
Kevin is proud of all four daughters, but admits things worked out perfectly for Ashley.
"It's been a good fit," he said. "It played out to a `T.' She found it all at Stanford."