TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It might be the most beautiful airport runway that Kylee Hanson has ever seen.
Hanson and her Florida State teammates had just landed in Oklahoma City, site of the NCAA Women’s College World Series, and as she stepped off the plane, Hanson was immediately overcome as she took in the view of the city.
Or at least its airport.
“There’s actually a picture of me getting off the plane with my jaw just completely dropped,” Hanson said with a smile. “I’ve been nonstop smiling since I’ve been here.”
Hanson is hardly alone in that. She and the Seminoles begin their WCWS run against UCLA on Thursday (9:30 p.m., ESPN2), and everyone who boarded that plane is embracing an opportunity to compete on softball’s biggest stage.
But given the road that Hanson travelled to Oklahoma City – which includes a standout career with another program, a painful, costly injury and a difficult decision to transfer for graduate school – it’s easy to understand why Hanson’s smile might have been slightly bigger than the rest.
Most players on Florida State’s softball team are in the hunt for the WCWS every single year: The Seminoles’ four-year seniors are making their second trip, and in the two years they didn’t make it, they fell just one game short.
For Hanson, though, this is it. She’s a fifth-year senior who had never previously advanced out of the Regional round of the NCAA tournament. And she’s also the staff ace on a team looking to bring home its first national title.
“It’s a unique situation, and it’s a dream come true,” Hanson said. “I feel like I’ve been a part of a fairy tale.”
In this story, Hanson saved the day by serving as a ready-made replacement for departed superstar Jessica Burroughs, the All-America pitcher who was the first player taken in last year’s National Pro Fastpitch draft.
And the Seminoles returned the favor by providing a lifeline to Hanson, who thanks to a season-ending ankle injury was languishing at Florida Atlantic and torn about how best to use her final year of eligibility.
She could have stayed at FAU, where she had been a part of two NCAA tournament appearances, and where still dreamed of one day making a Cinderella run to the World Series.
But after two quick exits at the hands of national power Florida, Hanson had started to realize that the clock had struck midnight on that scenario.
And anyway, after not pitching for nearly a year, Hanson figured a fresh start might do her some good. Especially one that might end in Oklahoma City.
“I wanted to go the World Series,” she said. “And the fact that Florida State is knocking on the door every year, if not there, to win a national championship was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. And it worked out.”
Her undergraduate degree in hand and her mind made up, Hanson connected with Florida State coach Lonni Alameda, who four years before had nearly signed Hanson out of Jupiter High.
Back then, Alameda wanted Hanson to redshirt. Hanson wanted to play. So she went down the road to Florida Atlantic, and for three years, had no regrets about the decision.
She won 59 games, posted a 1.21 earned-run average and as a junior earned second-team All-America honors.
Then, with designs on even greater heights as a senior, Hanson injured her ankle just six games into the season.
Those would be the last pitches she’d throw for nearly a year.
“Along with the physical struggles, there were a lot of mental struggles,” Hanson said. “To watch all the games and really want to be a part of it and want to help your team and know you physically can’t, it’s a terrible feeling.”
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave.
But conversations with Alameda, as well as Florida State pitcher Meghan King, helped sway Hanson toward Tallahassee.
A chance to pursue a master’s degree in public health didn’t hurt, either.
“It took a long time,” Alameda said. “It was the middle of summer when she decided. It was pretty exciting for us, because we knew the talent we were getting.”
Hanson’s talent had no trouble translating to the Atlantic Coast Conference or beyond.
Heading into Thursday’s start against UCLA, Hanson has pitched her way to 28 wins (tied for seventh-most in the nation), a 1.05 ERA (tied for eighth) and a pair of no-hitters, the most recent of which came in an NCAA regional outing against Jacksonville State two weeks ago.
More impressive than any of that, though, was the way Hanson battled back from a bout of adversity in last week’s Super Regional.
In the circle for what was the then the biggest start of her life, Hanson was doing just fine until the top of the fifth inning, when the heart of LSU’s lineup got to her with a home run and a double in back-to-back at-bats.
Alameda turned to reliever Cassidy Davis and, three unearned runs later, the Seminoles were in a deep hole. LSU went on to win, 6-5.
But rather than fold after a rare subpar outing, Hanson remained confident in two things: that King would get her job done in Game 2, and that, if she got another opportunity against the Tigers in a Game 3, she’d make the most of it.
King did her part to even the series with a 186-pitch, 11-inning gem in an 8-5 FSU victory.
Then, blessed with a second chance, Hanson shut down the Tigers to the tune of five hits, one walk and one run. She allowed just two runners to reach scoring position for the entire game.
“She has great stuff,” King said. “She’s one of the most competitive pitchers I know, and we always butt heads because we want to see who is going to be more competitive in the moment. She’s been absolutely amazing.”
While Hanson and King may share a friendly rivalry, Alameda believes that neither would have reached the success they’ve had this season (King, no slouch in her own right, is 22-6 with a 1.37 ERA) without the other’s influence.
Hanson for having King to lean on as she made the transition to Florida State, and King for having Hanson to shake up the rotation and push her to improve.
“As much as Kylee has pitched and done things for us, if we didn’t have Meghan we would not be the 1-1 punch we are,” Alameda said. “I think Meghan’s character has been outstanding for this program and she’s very selfless with that mindset.”
It’s all added up to one of the most dominant pitching tandems in the ACC, if not the entire nation.
And a chance for Hanson’s fairy-tale ride to have the sweetest of endings.