Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 21, 2010

Stanford's Haber goes from fan to a role model

by Rick Eymer

Growing up in nearby Newark, the young Alissa Haber knew all about Stanford Olympian Jessica Mendoza, still considered the greatest softball player to ever don a Cardinal uniform.

This weekend, with Stanford hosting a regional as the NCAA tournament opens, there will be a handful of future softball stars in the stands who know all about Haber, who is, herself, now a member of the United States National Team.

"I was a huge fan of Mendoza," Haber said Wednesday as she and her team prepared for Friday's 6 p.m. regional opener against Texas Tech. "I came to games just to see her play. She was my softball role model."

Stanford (36-17) is the No. 2 seed in the regional and is hosting because of travel restrictions. The NCAA committee prefers to have at least one other team within driving distance of the host school. Top seed Hawaii (44-13) plays UC Davis (26-17) at 3 p.m. in the other regional opener.

It's only fitting that Haber, one of three seniors (with Rosey Neill and Shannon Koplitz) playing their final home games this weekend, has followed in Mendoza's footsteps to join her as one of Stanford's greatest players.

Haber was named to the All-Pac-10 first team and is in line to become just the second Cardinal softball player to become a four-time All-American. The first? Well, Mendoza, of course.

"I'm honored to be compared to such a great player," Haber said. "It's an honor in itself just to be mentioned in the same breath."

She's earned the recognition. Haber enters the weekend with a .395 career batting average, second only to Mendoza.

During Stanford's sweep of Oregon last weekend, Haber collected her 71st career double, overtaking Mendoza for the school record in that category.

Mendoza played at Stanford during Haber's formative years, while she was developing as a player and making the transition from tweener to teenager. As a freshman at Stanford, Haber met her role model and had the opportunity for a catch.

"I was shaking I was so nervous and excited," said Haber, who also has a career fielding percentage of .989 and hasn't committed an error in her past 118 games, dating to May 10, 2008 at Arizona.

Haber has recorded hitting streaks of 10 (twice), 11 and 18 games during her career. Her longest hitless streak was four games during her freshman year. Over her last three seasons, Haber has been held hitless in two consecutive games twice and three games once.

In her first college game, Haber walked, was hit by a pitch, stole second, scored twice, grounded out and doubled, all in the first four innings of Stanford's 11-1 win over Western Michigan on Feb. 9, 2007.

Haber, Neill and Koplitz hope to guide the Cardinal into another Super Regional despite the loss of freshman pitcher Teagan Gerhart, who remains day-to-day with soreness in her right arm. She'll unlikely be available to pitch or pinch-hit this weekend.

"Our seniors are three tremendous, talented student-athletes," Stanford coach John Rittman said. "They bring so much to our team as far as producing and being leaders on and off the field. Rosey is a hard worker and runs the defense. Shannon has gotten better every year. She's our number three hitter and has a work ethic second to none. It's a wonderful group and they are truly a pleasure to coach."

Neill earned her third consecutive Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year award and honorable mention. Koplitz was named to the second team.

Ashley Hansen joined Haber on the first team while Gerhart and Jenna Rich were honorable mention and named to the All-Freshmen Team.

Haber, Neill and Koplitz have formed a bond that goes beyond Smith Family Stadium.

"I don't think I could pick better people to go through this experience," Haber said. "We're all different personalities and we complement each other. I've lived with Rosey and I am going to be living with Shannon at grad school."

Haber and Neill took their official recruiting visits to Stanford together and played together on the U.S. Junior National Team that won the world championship in 2007. Koplitz and Haber were teammates with Absolute Blast during the summer of 2008, a team that participated in the Canadian Cup that featured the national teams from Japan and Venezuela.

The next year Haber returned to the tournament as a member of the U.S. National Team.

"They are definitely more than teammates," Haber said. "They are close friends. It's been an incredible journey with them."

Haber gave herself two choices after graduation. If she didn't get into graduate school (she's an English major and a prolific reader), she would apply to be on the reality television series, "Survivor."

She wouldn't call herself a reality TV junkie, but she admits they are a "guilty pleasure." In addition to Survivor, Haber enjoys 'The Real Housewives' series, and has met one of the daughters of the Orange County crew.

"I attend classes with the future leaders and greatest minds during the day and then let myself become a blob at night," she laughingly said. "I know it's all so bad."

Without Gerhart, much of the pitching load has fallen to junior Ashley Chinn, a local product from Carlmont High. After some early struggles, Chinn has settled down and pitched effectively over the final two weeks of the season.

"Ashley has pitched in big games before," Rittman said. "She's a very capable pitcher when she hits her spots. She pitched behind Missy (Penna) and this year Teagan stepped up."

Gerhart received national attention earlier in the year when she threw a perfect game and two no-hitters in succession. That turned out to be the apex of her season as she was injured shortly thereafter.

"When Teagan was pitching, Ashley was a work in progress," Rittman said. "Once Teagan went down, it was 'OK, you have to go, there's no more taking it slow.' She had to learn on the run and make adjustments. She was getting the ball and she's done an outstanding job."

Seven of the eight Pac-10 teams earned bids into the NCAA tournament, and five of them — Arizona, Arizona State, California, UCLA, Washington — are the top seeds in their regional. Stanford and Oregon are the No. 2 seeds in their regional.

"Nothing prepares you better for the postseason than playing in the Pac-10," Rittman said. "It's going to be a very competitive regional. It's about executing right now."

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