Stanford's Hansen holds true to hype

February, 15, 2009
02/15/09
8:54
PM ET
SAN DIEGO -- If you want to assign blame for the prevalence of hype in our modern world, there is plenty fairly handed out to those of us who persistently peddle it.

But save a little for enablers such as Stanford freshman Ashley Hansen. Because sometimes a player comes along who provides the hype-addicted their justification to keep peddling.

It turns out, this season's biggest brand name among incoming freshman position players is, in fact, every bit as good as advertised. Actually, scratch that; she's even better.

Hansen arrived in Palo Alto, Calif., with the phrase "the only high school player invited to the United States national team selection camp in 2007" attached to her name as if it were the title of a member of Britain's royal family. And based on the way she tore through the Campbell/Cartier Classic at San Diego State during the second weekend of her college career, she may soon add the Pac-10 realm to her softball fiefdom.

"She is just a phenomenal ballplayer," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "She's a leader on the field as a freshman; she plays the game like a veteran. The toughest thing about Ashley is where to put her defensively because she plays a number of positions and she plays them all well. She's all that everyone talks about. I mean, if you just watch her work in practice, watch her work in the cage, watch her make adjustments at this level already, her coaches prior to her getting to Stanford have done an outstanding job with her. She's a special talent."

For the weekend, Hansen collected 10 hits and nine RBIs in four games and displayed range, soft hands and a strong arm at shortstop. She's hitting .531 through her first nine games, including three doubles, three triples and two home runs, with 17 RBIs.

Granted, a two-week introduction is a small sample size -- as Stephen Colbert might facetiously suggest, only time will tell if she's going to be a great player or the greatest player. But it's less hyperbole than logic to say she's going to be one of the most valuable players on the field for the next four years.

That she's already filling such a role speaks to an unusual combination of mental poise and physical polish for a player who won't turn 19 until after Pac-10 play begins. It's what comes from not only the memorable national team tryout but starring roles on teams that won the 2006 Junior Pan Am Championship and the 2007 Junior World Championship.

So while she shared any freshman's season-opening butterflies when she suited up for Stanford this spring, she had a unique reservoir of experience to call on while settling in. Neither the home run she hit in her first college at-bat nor the 0-for-4 effort in her second game shifted her out of gear. Nor, for that matter, did a misplaced step during infield drills before Friday's game against Long Beach State that sent her tumbling unceremoniously onto her posterior, much to the general amusement of her teammates.

Even budding superstars have to deal with the occasional stumble.

"I mean, there were initial nerves at first," Hansen admitted. "And being at shortstop, that's a big leadership position. But I've been in a lot of pressure situations before, so it's kind of a challenge for me, and I enjoy challenges."

Forget the way the ball explodes off Hansen's bat; watching her play reaches a point that when she takes three steps toward the left-field corner, leaps and comes up inches shy of snaring a backhand liner, as happened Friday against Long Beach State, it's almost disappointing. Softball is a game governed by a probability of failure, especially for batters -- but even as a freshman, Hansen is one of those talents who has the mental and physical tools to make success seem like a certainty in almost any situation.

"It's pretty rare," Rittman said. "I've been coaching for a number of years, and there have been a few that have come through with that kind of work ethic, focus and just savvy on the ball field. It's fun to watch her play, and a coach, when you get one like that, you just enjoy it."

No wonder the national team wanted to make sure it had the right mailing address for someone it will be contacting for years to come. Even if that initial invite left the then-Arizona high schooler at more of a loss than college pitchers have yet managed.

"At first, I saw the envelope and thought it was for the junior team or something," Hansen recalled. "And I opened it up and I was like, 'Mom, uh, this is for the women's team.' So it was really just a lot of shock and excitement."

Fans of college softball will share those sentiments when they see her in action.

  • Valentine's linkage: This is surely the first marriage announcement in this space, but Dick Baker recounts in The Republican, Friday the 13th wasn't unlucky for Massachusetts standout Whitney Mollica. Between periods of the Massachusetts-Northeastern hockey game, Mollica found herself the recipient of a marriage proposal from public address announcer Matt Goldstein -- Mollica's boyfriend -- during a goal-shooting contest. Thankfully for Matt's sake, considering she was still armed with a stick, she happily accepted.

  • Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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