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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - February 10, 2012

Stanford starts with nation's best player

Cardinal hopes Hansen and others can return team to the College World Series this season

by Rick Eymer

Ashley Hansen, the reigning National College Softball Player of the Year, opened last season with a sensational showing at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., which led to her emergence as the nation's top player.

The senior shortstop returns to Tempe this weekend as ninth-ranked Stanford opens its season with five scheduled games on the campus of Arizona State. No one expects Hansen to repeat her performance — 11 of 18 (.611) with two doubles, two triples, seven runs scored and five RBI — but anyone who has seen her play knows she doesn't give up an at bat or a fielding chance lightly.

Hansen, along with returning power pitcher Teagan Gerhart (yes, Toby's younger sister) and several other all-Pac-10 and all-West Region returnees give the Cardinal (42-17 last year with an appearance in the NCAA Super Regional) a championship look.

Stanford, which qualified for its 14th consecutive NCAA tournament and reached its fifth Super Regional under veteran coach John Rittman, once again will face a difficult task in the Pac-12.

A conference team has won 24 of the 30 NCAA titles contested and another 16 have lost in the title game.

There were seven Pac-12 teams in last year's NCAA tournament and six of them advanced to a Super Regional, with the Sun Devils and California reaching the Women's College World Series. Arizona State came out of the losers' bracket to win the title.

Stanford dropped two of three to host Alabama, the national No. 2 seed, in last year's Super Regional and is looking for its first WCWS appearance since 2004 this time around.

Despite its national ranking, the Cardinal was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12. That's because Stanford is just one of seven conference teams among the ESPN/USA Softball preseason top 25.

Hansen and Gerhart are two of 11 returning lettermen, who also include first team all-conference and first team all-region picks Sarah Hassman and Jenna Rich.

"We have very high expectations for this season," said Rittman, beginning his 16th year with the program. "We have a group of seniors who have been through pretty much every postseason scenario that you can go through. They are really leading this team by example and are very determined to get to the College World Series and compete for a national championship. With the infusion of a lot of young talent, that goal is within reach for us."

Hansen and Hassman are at the top of the list when it comes to seniors with experience. Maya Burns and Jenna Becerra are the other seniors and have been major contributors during their time at Stanford.

Hansen, who has played with the U.S. National Team, has all the credentials as anyone who has played the game. She never slowed down after opening last year on a tear. She led the Pac-10 with a .495 batting average, 25 doubles, 95 hits, a .558 on-base percentage and a .797 slugging percentage. She ranked seventh with 51 runs scored.

Hansen led the nation in doubles per game (0.42) and ranked third in batting average, ninth in on-base percentage and 18th in slugging percentage. She was also listed as the third-toughest player in the nation to strikeout. Hansen's batting average, slugging percentage and hit totals all set Stanford single season records.

"Ever since Ashley has been in the Stanford program she has been a special player," Rittman said. "She has been an outstanding player both offensively and defensively, and does things the right way. She's the glue on our defense that keeps everyone into the game. She controls the emotions of the team on the field and she is just an outstanding leader."

Gerhart (26-13, 1.74 last year) also has established herself in the Stanford record books. She currently ranks second all-time in ERA (1.70), sixth in strikeouts (423), sixth in shutouts (14), seventh in wins (48).

Freshman Nyree White brings her own set of credentials to Stanford. The daughter of Oregon coach Mike White, Nyree led Marist High in Eugene to a pair of state titles. She's a three-time Pitcher of the Year and a four-time first team All-State selection.

She also played with the U.S. Junior National Team, which won the International Softball Federation Junior Women's World Championship in Cape Town, South Africa. White, who appeared in six games as a pitcher and first baseman, threw a three-inning, 17-0, perfect game against Botswana. She was 5 of 8 (.625) with three RBI.

White also won a gold medal, with the Under-18 national team, at the 2010 Pan American Championships, which qualified the Americans for the world tournament.

Hassman was one of the top centerfielders in the nation last year. She led the Pac-12 with 35 stolen bases and was the team leader with 60 runs scored. She was second, behind Hansen, with a .398 batting average, 74 hits and a .496 on-base percentage.

Rich has a .316 career average and has collected 22 home runs midway through her Cardinal career, which is the 10th-most in school history.

Becerra returns as the starting first baseman, and she can also play third base. Burns was a catcher and outfielder last year.

Kelsey Gerhart, one of the softball-playing Gerhart triplets with Teagan and Whitley, an outfielder for Cal Poly, is one of the top defensive catchers in the Pac-12.

Sophomores Corey Hanewich, Danielle Miller, Michelle Prong and Caitlyn Pura also return with plenty of experience.

Hanewich was an All-Pac-10 Conference honorable mention pick and named to the All-Pac-10 Freshman Team. Miller, also an All-Pac-10 Freshman Team selection, was third on the team with 35 RBI. Prong earned All-Pac-10 Freshman honorable mention honors while leading the team with 30 walks on the year. Pura started 23 games and appeared in 33.

White is one of eight freshmen and one of 10 rookies. Redshirt freshman Madison Hanten and redshirt sophomore Tegan Schmidt have yet to play with Stanford because of injuries.

"We have eight very talented freshmen, who have really brought a lot of competition at each position for us," said Rittman. "They are providing quality depth to our team and can provide consistency day-in and day-out. They are a good group of kids that work hard both on and off the field. They are going to bring a lot to this year's team."

In addition to White, the freshmen class also consists of Erin Ashby, Lauren Donovan, Hanna Winter, Alyssa Lombardo, Cassandra Roulund, Leah White and Tylyn Wells.

Stanford will again play one of the toughest schedules in the nation, including 28 games against last year's NCAA Tournament field.

"As always, we play a pretty tough non-conference schedule," Rittman said. "We are going to three high-profile tournaments, playing quite a few teams that made the postseason last year. It is going to give us a good indication of where we're at and what we need to work on to get ready for our conference season."

Stanford opens against Cal State Northridge and Texas A&M on Friday. The Cardinal will also play Portland State, Texas Tech and UC Santa Barbara.

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