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Philippou: Give Hanson the axe

0-2. 2-11. 0-8.
1-15. 1-9. 2-3.
9-13. 0-8. 1-2.
3-5. 1-6. 0-8.
0-13. 6-8. 0-9.
1-10. 0-1. 5-11.
1-9 . 5-6. 4-10.
0-9. 2-5. 5-10.

These score-lines are Stanford softball’s 24 conference losses from this past season — the first time a Pac-12 school has gone winless in the sport since 1994.

That’s right: The Cardinal ended their season with an 0-24 record in the Pac-12, as well as a 13-35 record overall. Furthermore, they were run-ruled in 10 of their 24 conference games, losing by 8 or more runs before the games were ended early by mercy rule.

This season’s winless conference record comes on the heels of the program’s similarly disastrous 2015 campaign, in which the team ended the season 17-37 and 2-22 in conference, marking the program’s worst conference record since 1995. That is, until this year.

When looking at the past two years’ results out of context, some people may consider them a fluke, or believe that the players are simply “that bad.” But this is far from the case.

In her two years as head coach, Rachel Hanson has only amassed 30 wins over 102 games (30-72) and two wins in 48 conference games (2-46), a Pac-12 win percentage of less than 5 percent.

Stanford softball did not used to be this way. Prior to the 2015 season, the program had 18 consecutive winning seasons. Before 2014, the Cardinal had appeared in the NCAA Tournament for 16 consecutive years. In 2014, the team narrowly missed the tournament with a 30-25 record.

On Sunday, this year’s Cardinal watched every other Pac-12 team get selected for the NCAA Tournament, as Stanford was the only Pac-12 school not to qualify; last year, only Stanford and Oregon State sat out.

To put it simply, Hanson’s inability to win since arriving at Stanford two years ago is unacceptable for an athletic program that calls itself the “Home of Champions.” And this is why she should be fired.

At this point, Stanford Athletics has made no indication that Hanson will be replaced. When asked whether there had been any changes to the team’s coaching staff, Stanford Athletics told The Daily that “nothing has changed in regards to Rachel [Hanson] or the coaching staff’s status.”

Hanson’s tenure as head coach followed the resignation of former head coach of 18 years John Rittman in May 2015. As The Daily and other outlets reported, former softball players and parents approached Muir that month, bringing allegations — ranging from favoritism to NCAA violations to unresponsiveness regarding an inappropriate relationship between a trainer and a player — against him.

After hearing about the meeting, many players who were not in attendance called some of the allegations “petty” and others “merely silly.” The player accused of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the trainer called the claims against her “disgusting and untrue.”

Following an investigation by the athletics department, which at least half of the team described as “not thorough,” Rittman announced his resignation. Hanson, who had previously coached at University of Dallas and Dartmouth College, was hired two months later.

Although Rittman has never discussed why he left Stanford and the University maintained that it is legally required to keep personnel matters confidential, SFGate attributed sources close to the athletic department with saying that “most Stanford teams are now expected to contend not just for postseason tournaments but for national championships.”

Under Hanson, softball has not come close to contending for either.

There are certain things about Hanson’s two years as head coach that on the surface could exonerate her lack of success.

Her two years at Stanford are arguably not a large enough sample size to justify her replacement. It sometimes takes time for a coach to establish his or her footing in a new program.

Two years of not simply mediocre but dreadful play, however, should be enough for any athletic director to remove a coach from her position. Firing a coach after one year of bad play may be considered impulsive; but doing so after two seasons, with the second one being worse, is legitimate and necessary at a place like Stanford.

And there is precedent for it: Before Jim Harbaugh rolled around to campus, Walt Harris went a combined 6-17 over two seasons before he was sacked as head coach of the football team.

While some people may point to the efforts of then-senior football players as being critical in forcing Harris’ removal, some softball players have already publicly expressed dissatisfaction with Hanson’s leadership.

In interviews with The Daily last year, three players said the following about Hanson and the program under her stewardship:

“If there was a freshman coming here, if I could let them know not to come, I would,” one said.

“Honestly, I don’t think Coach Hanson is qualified enough to be coaching at this level,” another said. “[She’s] in over her head.”

“The sad thing is, a recruit is coming here in the hopes of elite athletics and prestigious academics,” a third player said, “not knowing that they are about to sacrifice so much for so little.”

It is unlikely that a winless conference campaign has inspired greater confidence in her coaching abilities.

Even then, Hanson could blame the past two seemingly cursed years on other factors: the split among players over certain players’ involvement in Rittman’s resignation, which led to deep infighting on the team; lack of depth in the circle; or even a scarcity of talent that she had to work with.

None of these factors hold up when looked at more closely.

The Daily’s investigation of the team’s infighting found that most of the anti-Rittman players graduated after the 2015 season, suggesting that a split within the team was more likely a factor during Hanson’s first year as coach, rather than this season.

Having two pitchers this season did not reward the team with a lot of depth. Yet unlike last season, in which the team’s pitchers were plagued with injuries and position players had to take over in the circle, Stanford had two healthy starting pitchers in 2016 — and still couldn’t win a conference game.

Ironically, the team won more conference games last year with position players as pitchers than this season with its two starters.

In addition, the argument that Hanson had no talent to work with this year is far from the truth.

She had senior Kayla Bonstrom, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2013 and a second team All-American during her junior year.

She had junior Kylie Sorenson, an All-Pac-12 Second Team and All-Freshman Team selection during her freshman year, as well as a finalist for the NFCA Freshman of the Year award. Sorenson was also an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection in her sophomore year.

She had senior Jessica Plaza, who has previously played on the U.S. national team and was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection during her freshman and sophomore years.

Despite this talent, Stanford’s offensive performance has declined rapidly under Hanson’s leadership. After Hanson was hired, all nine starters from 2014 were maintained; yet in her first season as coach, the team’s batting average dropped from .316 in 2014, under Rittman, to .277. And while team dynamics could partially explain that drop, this year’s team batting average dropped another 40 points to .235.

She has also demonstrated an inability to develop incoming players. This year’s freshman and sophomore classes, comprising the players who have come into the program with her as the head coach, all hit below .240 this season. Everyone who hit above that standard (five players) had played at least one year under Rittman.

Hanson has also had her share of promising talent come into the program that has not developed under her guidance: Two former top-50 recruits from the sophomore class — recruits from Rittman, no less — hit under .200 this season.

Hanson’s incoming recruiting class of nine may seem as a sign that the program is moving in the right direction. But Hanson’s inability to develop new players and failure to take advantage of the talent she already has make the prospects of her reversing the crumbling trajectory of the program (for which she is at least partially responsible) inauspicious. (Not to mention that the recruits may stop coming or more players will quit if the failures of the past two years continue.)

Replacing Hanson might seem like an infeasible task and thus a reason to retain her for now — after all, who would want to take over at a program that seems to be in shambles? The very fact that Stanford softball could be that unappealing of a place to coach — particularly after years of success — is enough to prove the direness of the situation.

After going winless in conference, the team’s performance can only get better. And maybe as time goes on, things will improve for the team. But a coach that goes 2-46 in conference and 30-72 overall in her first two years at helm — and one who has demonstrated an inability to develop players to their full potential — suggests that the team’s record could improve, but not to the point at which it could seriously and consistently compete in the Pac-12, earn spots in NCAA Tournaments and contend for national titles.

***

In the best athletic program in the nation — one that has won 128 national titles and 21 Directors’ Cups, and one that has embraced all-around excellence as its defining standard — every sport and every student-athlete should be put in the position to succeed. Keeping Rachel Hanson as the head coach of the Stanford softball team would not ensure such success for the program.

It is not fair that the expectations of a winning culture cannot be promised to the student-athletes in every one of Stanford’s 36 varsity sports.

It is not fair that student-athletes who come to Stanford, expecting to compete in the NCAA Tournament and contend for national titles, are led by a coach who has won two conference games in two years.

And it is not fair that these softball players have to deal with such inadequacy in their collegiate playing experience — the zenith of their competitive careers, for which they worked so hard for so long to reach — and that the program’s profound failure will be part of their lasting memories of the sport they love. They deserve better.

 

Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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