The Stanford softball team opens up the season with a doubleheader tomorrow at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. The Cardinal returns 12 letter-winners and six starters from the 2010 squad that finished with a 37-19 record and was eliminated by Texas Tech in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Now carrying a preseason No. 18 ranking from USA Softball, Stanford is poised to break through on the national scene with a handful of award-winning players.
Junior infielder Ashley Hansen has won her fair share of honors in two seasons on the Farm, with two First Team All-Pac-10 selections to add to her National Fastpitch Coaches Association Second Team All-American honor as a freshman. She was also named one of the preseason finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year.
“It is an honor to be chosen but as of right now, it means nothing. It makes me more fired up to go prove myself this season,” Hansen said. “I am much more focused on winning a national championship right now, and I am looking forward to contributing a lot to my team.”
Her head coach, John Rittman, is entering his 15th season on the Farm and boasts a career 599-277-3 record with 13 consecutive winning seasons and 13 trips to the NCAA Tournament. His .683 winning percentage is one of the top marks in Div. I. Rittman has also coached 15 All-Americans at Stanford and is enamored by the consistency Hansen has already displayed in just two years for the Cardinal.
“Ashley Hansen is such a competitor and such a leader for our program,” Rittman said. “It seems like she’s been here for years already because of her consistency offensively, defensively, and her work ethic and attitude. Those are things you see everyday.”
Hansen looks likely to start at shortstop this year after moving to second base to make room for then-freshman Jenna Rich. The pair formed quite an impressive duo up the middle for the Cardinal, combining for 78 total runs, 86 RBI and 15 home runs while hitting .331 together.
Rich also worked her way into the pitching rotation after an injury to ace Teagan Gerhart midway through the year and is expected to feature in the circle for the Cardinal along with the senior Ashley Chinn and the sophomore Gerhart.
The younger sister of former football-baseball double athlete Toby, Teagan Gerhart is also looking to regain her form of early last season when she threw three straight no-hitters, including a perfect game against Santa Clara. Unfortunately, Gerhart was sidelined by an arm injury and couldn’t pitch in the last 15 games. She still finished with a 22-6 record and an ERA of 1.65—good enough for Second Team All-West Region honors and a spot on the All-Pac-10 Freshman Team.
“Whenever you lose a pitcher of Teagan Gerhart’s ability, there are questions about where will she come back,” Rittman said. “Will she start up where she left off? I do know that she has done an outstanding job in rehab to get ready for this season.”
With the pitching staff intact again, the Cardinal will still have to find a replacement for one of the top players in Stanford softball history, Alissa Haber. The graduated senior outfielder was a four-time All-American and four-time All-Pac-10 First Team selection, finishing her collegiate career with the Stanford record for doubles.
“Any time you lose three seniors, especially of the caliber of a four-time All-American, a two-time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, a leader like [Shannon] Koplitz, there are going to be questions of who is [going to] fill in those roles on our team,” Rittman said.
For the moment, it appears that the defense is set. Redshirt freshman Tegan Schmidt is back from a knee injury and taking Haber’s spot in right field with freshman Corey Hanewich expected to start in left. Junior Jenna Becerra will move over to third base to replace Koplitz and senior Melisa Koutz will play first base. Junior Maya Burns has transitioned from the outfield to fill graduated senior Rosey Neill’s big shoes behind the plate with Hansen, Rich and senior Sarah Hassman up the middle at short, second and center field.
“We have a great freshman, Corey Hanewich, who can be a dangerous weapon at the plate for us. She’ll add another great arm and speed to the outfield and help fill the hole left by Haber,” Hansen said.
The Cardinal is certainly going to be a young team; in addition to starting a true freshman, there will be only two seniors starting, but Rich said that this year is just like any other.
“Each year is always going to be different with the loss of veterans and gain of newcomers. After losing three seniors from last year, we have a young team this year. The team dynamic may be different, but that’s expected year-to-year,” she said. “And despite having a young team, we still have high expectations.”
According to Rittman, practices with the new team have been going extremely well and the team is antsy to return to competition.
“We have really benefited from this great weather and the team is really just ready to play. Everyone is tired of facing their teammates in practice and are ready to face a team in another uniform,” Rittman said. “I’ve been very impressed with their attitude and work ethic—the team is really coming together.”
There will be little time to figure things out for the young squad. Stanford takes on Cal State Northridge and North Texas on Friday and then faces two perennial NCAA Tournament contenders in Nebraska and Portland State.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what this team can do together,” Hansen said. “We have a very talented group of girls and this season is where we can finally show off what we can do. As a team, if we each take care of ourselves and do the little things, we will be playing in Oklahoma City in June.”
The Cardinal is slated to play a grueling preseason schedule with eight opponents that qualified for the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Then comes the Pac-10, which many analysts see as the deepest and most difficult conference in the country.
Stanford was sixth in the coaches’ preseason poll with defending national champion UCLA and runner-up Arizona splitting the top spot.
Friday’s season opener against Cal State Northridge is scheduled for 11 a.m. PST in Tempe, Ariz.