If you listen to the pundits, the key to success at the collegiate level in almost all team sports is experience. Michigan’s Fab Five notwithstanding, it is the holy grail of veteran leadership that turns talent and expectations into titles and crowns.
Therefore, when the Stanford softball team kicks off its season today at the Kajikawa Classic with just seven upperclassmen on the roster—and eight true freshman suiting up for coach John Rittman—the Cardinal’s No. 10 preseason ranking might seem a bit high.
But when your upperclassmen include the reigning USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, a potential pitcher of the year and two other all-conference honorees in the toughest league in the country, things might not be so bad.
Despite being picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 in the annual preseason coaches poll—a detail that speaks more about the unbelievable collection of talent in the conference this year with No. 1 Arizona State, No. 3 California and No. 8. Arizona all ranked ahead of the Cardinal in the national polls—Stanford is a popular darkhorse national title contender, thanks to that small but talented group of veterans and some highly touted newcomers.
Senior shortstop Ashley Hansen has to be at the forefront of any conversation concerning the Cardinal’s chances. Hansen had one of the greatest single seasons in Stanford history last season, finishing third in the country with an otherworldly .495 batting average on top of 25 doubles, nine home runs and 45 RBI.
Plenty of people took notice, as Hansen was named Pac-10 Player of the Year and earned her second All-American honors in addition to the USA Softball Player of the Year award.
She will need the same kind of protection that the rest of Stanford’s lineup afforded last season if the Cardinal is to challenge for the Pac-12 crown.
Fellow senior Sarah Hassmann had a breakout year as well, setting a single-season record with 35 steals, and also finding her way at the plate with a .398 batting average, which was .123 points higher than her previous career high.
Junior second baseman Jenna Rich also built on a solid freshman campaign with a standout sophomore season in which she led the team in with 10 home runs and 49 RBI.
The rest of Stanford’s lineup doesn’t lack for talent or pop, however. Senior outfielder and catcher Maya Burns has started 159 games in three seasons, and senior Jenna Becerra is the likely candidate to start at first base after primarily playing at the hot corner last season.
In addition, Rittman is looking to a fresh wave of new talent to make an impact. Sophomores Corey Hanewich, Danielle Miller and Michelle Prong all saw frequent action last season—with Hanewich and Miller earning All-Pac-10 Freshman Team honors—and classmate Caitlyn Pura came on strong towards the end of the year to earn playing time in the outfield.
Among the rookies, freshman Hanna Winter is expected to get some looks at third base, but she will likely face competition from redshirt sophomore Tegan Schmidt, who missed the past two seasons with knee injuries.
Winter has plenty of range and speed—she was a track star in high school in Thousand Oaks, Calif.—an asset that abounds across the incoming class of freshmen. That includes Leah White and Cassandra Roulund, who could both see action in the outfield.
But one of the most impactful recruits who will make her Stanford debut this weekend is pitcher Nyree White. A Marist High School star from Eugene, Ore., White is a two-time state champion, three-time Pitcher of the Year and four-time First Team All-State honoree. She looked very solid during the fall exhibition season and will slide into the Cardinal’s No. 2 slot in the rotation.
Nevertheless, much of Stanford’s success will live and die on the right arm of junior ace Teagan Gerhart. The younger sister of former football star Toby, Gerhart was an All-Pac-10 First Team selection last season, going 26-13 with a 1.74 ERA and staggering 250 strikeouts.
The Cardinal will need her to remain dominant in the circle if it is to blaze a path to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2004 after coming up short in the Super Regionals in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Stanford will be tested early and often on the road to the College World Series in Oklahoma City, with 28 games scheduled against 2011 NCAA Tournament participants and 20 games against the preseason Top-25.
This weekend, the Card is kicking things off in Tempe, Ariz., for the second consecutive season. Stanford opens with a double header against Cal State Northridge and No. 15 Texas A&M today. Saturday brings Portland State and Texas Tech, with UC-Santa Barbara on the slate for Sunday.
After that, it’s back to the Farm for the home opener at the Stanford Nike Invitational, February 17-19.
Today’s first pitch from the desert is scheduled for 8 a.m. PST, with the second game of the twin bill to begin at 1 p.m. PST.