Ashley Hansen set to give up softball

Unless her team makes the Women's College World Series, most people won't get a chance to see Stanford star shortstop Ashley Hansen in action. Graham Hays/ESPN.com

The best college player in her sport last season, Ashley Hansen will play her final game for Stanford in the coming days, perhaps as soon as this weekend in a difficult NCAA tournament regional in Louisiana.

Whenever it comes, it will be the last chance to see her on a softball field. And if the game doesn't come in the Women's College World Series, most people won't seize that opportunity.

Whether such a scenario is something to celebrate in the current climate of skepticism about college athletics or lament as a lost opportunity for an athlete and sport is up for debate. The truth is, it's probably both. But 40 years after Title IX, as college softball begins its march toward a championship in Oklahoma City that grows bigger and bigger by the year, it's a bittersweet reality.

Soon after the final out ends the Cardinal's season, Hansen will join the majority of college athletes in the "real" world. She'll get a job. With softball dropped from the Olympics after the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, the NCAA tournament will be Hansen's competitive softball farewell. Come August, she'll start as a business development associate for Inflection, a technology startup in the Bay Area.

While Stanford peers Andrew Luck and Nnemkadi Ogwumike were selected first overall in the most recent NFL and WNBA drafts, respectively, after standout college careers, Hansen was not picked in this spring's draft in National Pro Fastpitch, the four-team professional softball league that plays a three-month summer schedule. Nor will she play for the United States national team that will travel to Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory for this summer's International Softball Federation World Championship.

Hansen's omission had nothing to do with concerns about how her skills translated to the next level, as might be the case for an option quarterback in football or an undersized post player in basketball. She earned an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team while still an Arizona high schooler and two years later won a world championship as the youngest member of a national team that included established stars like Monica Abbott, Jessica Mendoza and Cat Osterman. As a junior at Stanford, she was named USA Softball Player of the Year, the sport's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

One of the best defensive shortstops in college softball, Hansen likely will finish with a career batting average of better than .400 in addition to a school record for doubles and triples.

In 114 games and more than 420 plate appearances the past two seasons, she struck out just nine times.

In other words, she's a baller.

"She knows the game inside and out; she studies it," said Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, who coached Hansen with a junior U.S. national team and barely escaped her in a super regional last year. "She could probably have one at-bat against one kid and go in more prepared than half of college softball the next time -- she remembers what she throws. ... She's just a really good talent."

Nor was Hansen passed over because of character concerns. A consummate competitor blessed with intelligence, wit, warmth and personality, she is everything a sport could want as the face of a generation.

And yet, unlike peers in other sports like Maya Moore or Alex Morgan, Hansen isn't going to be a star for the next decade. She instead will be perhaps the most coveted company slow-pitch softball recruit in the history of Silicon Valley.

It is her choice. Sort of.

"A couple of years ago it was a completely different story," Hansen said. "The Olympics were still in the picture. And it's sad to say, but without the Olympics ... that was my ultimate goal, to get to the Olympics. When that was taken away and not really a possibility, I started to turn my attention to other things. I always knew that softball wasn't going to be a career for me. That's one of many reasons I chose to go to Stanford. But when it got taken out of the Olympics, it kind of shortened my softball career a little bit more than I originally had planned."

When softball was booted from the Olympics after 2008, the sport lost its biggest stage. Funding for the national team was reduced, and some of the stars from the team that won silver in Beijing and gold in the 2010 world championship chose to retire. Others devoted their time to strengthening a professional league that has some positive momentum building with exposure on national television but still faces long odds in achieving anything close to the kind of financial stability that would make it viable in the long run.

In the cases of all but a handful of players, participating in the pro league is a choice between following a love for the sport for at least a few more years and getting on with the rest of their lives.

"For someone like Ashley, it's hard because she's such a great player, but she also knows what she wants to do in her career," said Osterman, who plays for the NPF's USSSA Pride and whose exposure as a two-time Olympian helped her establish the kind of name recognition that allows for endorsement income. "If there's not that ultimate goal of the Olympics, and she can make more money getting a job right out of college than she can trying to piece together a job and then summer ball, it's hard to sometimes hang it up, but it's the ugly truth of our big stage being taken away."

This is not an entirely sad story. It would be if Hansen had devoted the first 20-plus years of her life to sports at the expense of everything else, only to find herself unprepared for a world that had no use for a shortstop with gap power. But it is not for someone who, even as she grew up going to University of Arizona softball games, dreamed not of playing for one of the sport's two dynastic programs but for Stanford. She could have played for any team, but she told every school that recruited her she was going to Stanford if she got in.

Hansen got an education at one of the best schools in the country, majoring in management science and engineering, and had a chance to play in the best college softball conference. Turning all of that into a good job is a happy ending. It's a success story.

"I love communicating to people, I love talking to people, I love all of that," Hansen said. "[The job with Inflection] incorporates that, but it also has the analytics and the math that I love, too -- the nerdy side of me that Stanford brings out in all of us. It's kind of the best of both worlds."

Yet as genuine as she sounds in her excitement about the opportunity, there is, if not anger, at least sadness that her choice was ultimately between something and nothing. Nobody plays the game, any game, with as much intensity as Hansen one day and wakes up the next day content to give it up for good -- certainly not a person who this month turned 22 and who knows her best athletic years are ahead of her. Forget any degree of fame or fortune, although those things matter; Hansen is leaving too many wins and too much softball on the table not to feel a twinge of bitterness.

"It is frustrating," Hansen said. "I'm never, ever going to get over the fact that the Olympics are taken out for our sport. I'm just not. And I'm never going to settle for it. I'm going to do what I can to get it back in, so people don't have to feel the way I feel. Unfortunately, I was born -- it was bad timing, I guess. The year that I really could have gone to the Olympics for the first time, for 2012, it got taken out. And now it's out indefinitely, but for sure [it can't return] until 2020, and I'm going to be 30 years old.

"I respect all of those girls that are building up that professional league, and it's something that I admire and I hope that grows stronger, but for a personal decision for me right now, it's not what I see as my next step in life."

That next step is something to admire. But unless Stanford finds a way to reach the World Series, it will take her out of view for most people, leaving Hansen as one of the best athletes too many people never got to see.