FARGO — North Dakota State senior catcher Maddie Hansen was a junior in high school when she thought she was going to the Big Ten's Northwestern with her battery mate for travel softball Amber Fiser. Hansen had been Fiser's catcher all through high school and the two lived 20 minutes from one another in Iowa.
"Her and I had the same dreams growing up," Fiser said. "We wanted to play Division I softball. She caught me most of my life, so we thought how cool it would be if we could do it together. I throw hard and she throws it even harder to second, so we would laugh at people trying to steal on us."
But it wasn't meant to me. Northwestern stopped contacting the two and Hansen was left wondering if she'd ever fulfill her goal of playing Division I softball.
It's been a long road for Hansen, but she'll find herself squaring off against Fiser at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Minnesota to open the Minneapolis Regional of the NCAA Division I softball tournament. Fiser enters the tournament as the leading pitcher for the Gophers behind a 1.24 earned-run average, 26-7 record and 301 strikeouts in 214.1 innings. Hansen enters the tournament leading the Bison with 12 homers and a .644 slugging percentage.
"It's been a full-circle loop," Hansen said. "I'm a key believer in things happening for a reason and they always work out. I think that's why I was meant to be here."
Fiser was a sophomore and Hansen was late in her junior year of high school when Northwestern fell through. Hansen's options were limited. Joe Yegge, now an associate head coach at DePaul University in Chicago, was the coach at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa at the time. He had been a hitting coach for Hansen, and she had always joked she would never go the junior college route and play at Kirkwood.
Well, there she was, looking for a softball team late in her high school career. She had some Division II offers, but she had always wanted to play Division I softball. She went to Yegge.
"You know I'd never say no," Hansen remembers Yegge saying to her.
Yegge is good friends with NDSU head coach Darren Mueller. The two scheduled a game between Kirkwood and NDSU because Yegge told Mueller he should look at his center fielder and he also had this freshman catcher that wasn't bad either.
That freshman catcher was Hansen.
"Just the raw power," Mueller said when asked what he saw from Hansen. "I don't know how many homers she had at Kirkwood, but that was something we knew we needed. I thought she'd bring a lot of leadership as well because knowing we were going to have a freshman catcher this year and having someone that could be a leader for us coming in as a junior."
She hit 20 home runs with 93 RBIs as a freshman at Kirkwood and 19 home runs and 92 RBIs as a sophomore. She was set to go to Ball State, but decommitted and headed to NDSU as a junior. Hansen struggled in her first season with the Bison, hitting .206 with 18 RBIs in 40 games. Mueller also noticed she was struggling with taking a leadership role.
"She wasn't comfortable with the team, being a transfer and having a senior ahead of her," Mueller said. "This year I think she's kind of learned a little more about our team, culture, things we kind of do. Also, little bit more vocal with the pitching staff."
This season has been a different story, as Hansen is speaking plenty with her voice and her bat.
"She's definitely good at doing her job as a catcher, controlling the field and overlooking everything," NDSU pitcher Paige Vargas said. "She knows what helps me get back into my groove if I'm out of it. It's very important. If you don't know your pitcher and I don't know my catcher, the chemistry is off and you're not going to play your best."
As for the bat, she's hitting .336 with an on-base percentage of .425, 12 homers, 45 RBIs and 31 runs in 54 games.
"She never gave up," Fiser said. "She still wanted to work hard, she went to Kirkwood, which is a great JUCO college, and she got a second opportunity. Seeing her follow her dream and continue to be successful, it makes me so happy. I'm so happy she's so happy."
The NCAA tournament will be it for Hansen's playing career. But she's taking another loop around life this summer. Hansen says she fell in love with softball because of her youth softball coach Doug King. He coached her when she was 9 years old until she was 14. He still checks up on her career.
Hansen admitted King's way of coaching was a little rough, but that's what made her tough.
"One of the last weekends of my career he said, 'I tried to break you. I was looking to see how hard I could push you until you'd break and you never did,'" Hansen said. "That just amazed me because I never broke and never let him get the best of me. I always kept fighting no matter what he expected of me."
Hansen will head back to Iowa this summer to study real estate, just like her mom. She'll also be an assistant high school softball coach at Anamosa High School where King used to coach.
But first she has a meeting with an old friend on the softball field.
"It's been a journey and it's been a heck of a fun one," Hansen said. "I wouldn't trade any of the steps for anything. It all happened for a reason. I don't think it has set in and I don't think it'll set in until it's all over, but I'm excited to get to work and have some fun this weekend."