Sports

MUHS grad passes along lessons as college mentor

MUHS AND MIDDLEBURY College graduate Craig Hanson, center, has led the Dickinson College baseball program for 14 years. A tip from his brother Matt, right, helped his career along. Support from his father, John, left, and his mother Ann was also vital in starting Hanson along the coaching path.

The guys I was sharing the dugout with, they were some of my fondest memories of ever playing the sport, the laughs and the road trips. It was pure joy.
— Craig Hanson

CARLISLE, Penn. — Many former athletes — or for that matter members of musical groups, theatrical troupes or dance companies — talk about learning the value of teamwork, discipline and passion from those pursuits.
Some also become coaches and instructors and teach those lessons to the next generation of athletes and performers.
Middlebury Union High School Class of 1998 and Middlebury College Class of 2003 baseball and football player Craig Hanson followed that path, and he remembers well what started him on it.
During summers between his first two Panther spring baseball and fall football seasons, his former Addison County Legion Baseball Coach Bill Hageman invited Hanson to help out with the program. As a bonus, Hanson could hone his skills while working out with many of his former teammates.
The late Hageman, at that time also the Middlebury College pitching coach, had also coached Hanson in youth baseball, and no doubt seen his leadership potential.
“He worked with me individually. I miss him a ton. He was one of my mentors, for sure, and one of the reasons I found myself in coaching,” said Hanson, for the past 14 years the head of the baseball program at NCAA Division III Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
“I saw how passionate he was about the game and how willing he was to take time out of his schedule to work with local kids like myself.”
That stint eventually led to Hanson’s decision as a college senior to take a winter term internship with the NCAA Division I Stanford University baseball team.
That internship triggered a series of events that led to his current job, where he has become Dickinson’s winningest baseball coach, with more than 200 victories. And Dickinson has just invested $750,000 in a new indoor baseball plant.
As well as the wins, Hanson points to what graduates have done off the field — one is well placed in the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office, for example — and the closeness among athletes in the program — last week another former player sent Hanson a picture of his newborn son.
“We’ve had some great success, and developed some guys who have gone on to do some great things,” Hanson said. “It’s been truly rewarding to be part of that and have my fingerprints on this generation of Dickinson baseball players. I love the job.”

PLAYING YEARS
Hanson’s sports story begins with playing baseball, soccer and basketball at about age 5 in the mid-1980s, when his parents, Ann and John Hanson, were working for Dartmouth College. A move to California followed, with more organized sports. Then the family headed to Middlebury as he entered third grade.
“Every season was my favorite sport. But I was probably best at baseball from an early age,” Hanson said.
In Middlebury Little League he often played shortstop and pitched before his permanent switch to first base as he reached high school. He dropped basketball and soccer after his freshman year and focused on football and baseball.
Recruiting from his friend Gus Brakeley and his father, football Head Coach Peter Brakeley, influenced the move to football. Hanson said he learned a lot about coaching, period, not just football from Peter Brakeley and assistants like Carl Ciemniewski and Dennis Smith.
“That coaching staff was unbelievable,” Hanson said. “The culture Coach Brakeley created, every kid wanted to play for that team.”
Hanson played JV football as a sophomore, earned varsity time during his junior year, and started fulltime at tight end and defensive tackle as a senior. The program lost to a powerhouse Rutland team in D-I finals his final two years at MUHS, but he made the 1998 Vermont Shrine Bowl team.
And that Vermont all-star squad picked up a rare win over New Hampshire, 21-13. Hanson recalls hitting the N.H. quarterback to force an interception that Vermont turned into a touchdown.
His Tiger baseball teams compiled winning records, but lost in close D-I quarterfinals every season. Hanson remembers hitting over .500 and slugging more homers than striking out as a senior.
Hanson’s summer American Legion baseball teams were strong, but couldn’t quite get past Essex.
Hanson spoke about his favorite memories from those years.
“First and foremost my teammates, the guys I was sharing the dugout with. They were some of my fondest memories of ever playing the sport, the laughs and the road trips,” he said, adding, “It was pure joy. Obviously we were competitive and wanted to win games, but I was playing with my best friends. We were having success and winning games, and I was playing well.”

ON TO COLLEGE
Unsure of his college preferences and wanting to improve his athletic and academic skills, Hanson took a post-graduate year at New Jersey’s Lawrenceville School.
Hanson boiled down his college options to baseball at Dartmouth or both baseball and football at Middlebury. The opportunity to double-dip won out, at least once he reached an agreement about appropriate boundaries with his parents, who both worked at the college.
“After graduating from Middlebury Union High School if you had told me I would end up at Middlebury College I would have said no way, it’s too close to home,” he said. “It was one of those things that I didn’t realize what a great school it was and what a great opportunity it was until I had some time away and I got some perspective, and if I was going to go the Division III Route I wasn’t going to find a better place than Middlebury.”
Hanson ended up playing two seasons of football, but left because his father had a cancer scare — John Hanson is now fine and he and Ann Hanson are now major supporters of Dickinson baseball — and Hanson wanted time to support his family.
“I made a tough decision, but one I don’t regret,” Hanson said. “I played four years of baseball and loved my time at Middlebury. My teammates were great, and it was a great level of competition.”
As well as coaching the Legion team in the offseason, Hanson said he also learned from all his Panther coaches.
Of baseball coach Bob Smith, for example, he said, “He did a great job of fostering a culture of team support and making sure everybody had each other’s back.”

COACHING CAREER
In the winter Stanford internship Hanson worked for more than month with some of the nation’s top D-I coaches and players. One player was Sam Fuld, now the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he is still in touch and who recently made a Zoom presentation to Hanson’s Dickinson team. 
As he approached graduation from Middlebury, Hanson reached out to the Stanford coaches and asked if they would act as references for other college positions. Instead he received a job offer to be Stanford baseball’s director of operations.
It was a volunteer position and required family support. Hanson said his parents happily offered it, telling him it was the equivalent of “a master class in coaching.”
He had been considering an offer to teach and coach at a New Jersey prep school, but he took Stanford job because his goal was to pursue a coaching career. “The light kind of went off in my head,” Hanson said.
Two days after graduation, he met the Stanford team at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where the Cardinals lost in the championship final. Hanson has an NCAA runner-up trophy in his home.
A year later Hanson’s younger brother Matt, then a pitcher at D-I Davidson College, clued him into an opening as the No. 2 assistant baseball coach at that school. Hanson won that job, and then moved up the ladder in 2005 when the program’s head assistant left.
“Being thrust in that position and given that opportunity to learn on the fly and be given more responsibility was huge,” Hanson said.
In 2006 Hanson got a tip from the father of one of his Panther teammates, a Dickinson professor: The Dickinson head coaching position was opening.
“My mindset at that point was, ‘I’m 26 years old, this will be a great experience for me just to go up and go through a formal interview process,’” Hanson said. “Two days later I was offered the job.”
Hanson said the program “had some talent, but hadn’t had a lot of success,” and after talking briefly with Hageman and the Stanford coaches, he accepted and started learning on the job.
“I tried in the early years to improve the culture and work hard in the recruiting and try to turn things around,” he said. “I’m sure I made mistakes as I went and was learning on the fly. I’m sure I am a better coach now than I was then, and I hope in 10 years I’m a better coach than I am now.”
Due to the pandemic the status of Dickinson’s Centennial League, spring season remains up in the air. Hanson’s squad might have to settle for practicing in its new facility until spring arrives.
“We’re looking forward to getting back together as a team right now,” he said.
Regardless, Hanson said he will keep in mind what he has learned from sports, and try to pass that knowledge along.
“I think sports are a great vessel for anybody to learn teamwork, selflessness, the importance of hard work, not giving up, and the importance of working together for a common goal … the life lessons you can learn about perseverance and adaptation and dealing with adversity are lessons that are going to benefit you in life,” Hanson said.
“Knowing the kids who come through the program are going to get better at baseball and are going to learn those lessons, they’re going to be successful in life and they’re going to appreciate their time here playing for me and stay in touch with me and give back to the program, those to me are signs of success and what I’m most proud of.”

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