“She has everything: the athletic ability, the persistence, the perfection she strives for. It’s insane," said Sarah Hudson of her teammate and Metro Player of the Year Emily Hansen.
Pictured, Hansen hits a fly ball against Elk River on May 31. Star Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores
Talking softball in the moments after delivering a game-winning, two-run double, Buffalo shortstop Emily Hansen let slip the secret of her remarkable talent for putting bat to ball.
Three simple words, common in ball vernacular but magic when combined with her myriad skills.
“Eyes at contact,” Hansen said with her usual infectious laugh. “That’s all you need.”
One thing about this secret, however: The power she derives from those words happens only when she hears them from her father, Darren.
“I’ve been playing softball since I was, like, 5 years old and my dad was my coach. He’s the most simple coach ever,” Hansen said. “That’s what he said to me before that hit.”
Can anyone inspire her with the magic phrase?
“It works when I hear it from my dad,” she said with a smile.
That hit was just one of dozens of big ones that Hansen produced in a five-year varsity career that has made her — the most feared hitter in the state — the 2018 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
Of course, there’s more to Hansen’s success than a few cogent words. There’s a tireless work ethic that often finds her taking swings long after teammates have gone home. There are natural gifts, too, such as the hand-eye coordination of a master juggler and the ability to generate power with the most economical of swings.
Her numbers this year are typically exceptional: a .509 batting average, 15 home runs, 36 RBI and remarkable 2.012 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), reflecting her ability to get on base and hit for average and power.
That batting average might be even higher if opponents were inclined to pitch to her. She’s been intentionally walked 13 times.
Not that she minds. Despite her gaudy numbers and outsized reputation, Hansen’s universe is devoid of anything resembling an ego. Buffalo coach Brad Zrust marvels at how calmly she deals with rarely seeing a pitch she likes.
“I wrote her a text once and said it’s got to be frustrating,” Zrust said. “She just said ‘A walk is as good as a hit.’ ’’
When she does get a pitch she likes, she rarely misses.
“I tell people ‘I’m coaching Roy Hobbs right now and I don’t even know it,’ ” said Zrust, comparing Hansen to the central character in the classic Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural.”
Sarah Hudson is Hansen’s best friend on the team, a lifelong softball buddy and a fair player in her own right, posting a .556 batting average with seven home runs, including three grand slams, and 33 RBI. She knows much of her success can be traced to Hansen, whether it’s because she hits directly behind her in the batting order or simply that she’s often along on the hard-work binges that frequently include postgame batting practice.
“She’s phenomenal,” Hudson said. “She’s been my best friend for forever. She hits all the time and she’s got to have a partner to hit with. Just last week after a game, she said ‘I’m going to have to go to the [batting] cage.’ I said ‘I think your dad is going to have to take you. I’m tired.’ ”
It’s all part of what makes Hansen the player she is, Hudson said. “She has everything: the athletic ability, the persistence, the perfection she strives for. It’s insane.”
The way Hansen sees it, the stats and the reputation and the success are all in the pursuit of something bigger. Her skills have landed her a scholarship to play for the University of Minnesota — “my lifelong dream,” she said.
But everything she does is with an eye on making her hometown proud.
“I just love Buffalo so much,” she said. “I’m so loyal and prideful for this school and I just want to do so well. I really love this place, Every year I’m here, my heart has gotten so big for this school. You just want to give something back to the school that has given you so much.”
2017: Marybeth Olson, Chanhassen
2016: Katelyn Kemmetmueller, Rogers
2015: Sydney Smith, Maple Grove
2014: Smith (junior)
2013: Hannah Heacox, Stillwater
2012: Cayli Sadler, Maple Grove
2011: Hayley Nybo, Hopkins
2010: Sara Moulton, Eagan
2009: Moulton (junior)
2008: Sam Hildebrandt, Park of Cottage Grove
2007: Brynne Dordel, Chaska
2006: Kristin Danielson, Mounds View
2005: Briana Hassett, Eastview
2004: Chrissy Sward, North St. Paul
2003: Allison Bakke, Anoka (junior)
2002: Kristen Schmidt, Park of Cottage Grove
2001: Missy Beseres, Armstrong
2000: Lyn Peyer (junior), Minnetonka
1999: Angie Recknor, Hopkins
1998: Recknor (junior)
1997: Lacey Hughes, Wayzata
1996: Karissa Hoehn, Stillwater
1995: Erika Kanavati, Henry Sibley
1994: Laura Peters, Park of Cottage Grove
1993: Tracy Carey, Richfield
1992: Laura LeVander, Woodbury
1991: Jeanette Strubb, St. Bernard’s
1990: Karyn Valentino, St. Bernard’s
1989: Sue Varland, North St. Paul
1988: Michelle DeBace, St. Bernard’s