If defending champion Norco High wins its sixth Southern Section title in 17 years this spring, it will be on the shoulders of junior pitcher Sarah Willis and senior catcher Kinzie Hansen, who have come from opposite ends of the sports spectrum to develop a special friendship.
Willis is a two-sport athlete who transferred to Norco from Chino Hills Ayala for her sophomore year. She pitches and plays guard on the basketball team. She said she transferred to improve her fortunes in softball. She commutes from her home in Ontario.
Hansen is the homegrown catcher who eschews other sports. She is one of a long line of Hansens to play at Norco, including 6-foot-4 father Jason, a football player; aunt Heather, a 6-foot basketball player who played at Cal State Fullerton; and uncle Casey, who was a quarterback for Norco and Norfolk State. Kinzie is 5-11. All the men in the family are 6 feet or taller. Her mom is 5-8.
Willis, 16, and Hansen, 17, faced each other on the travel circuit but did not know each other until Willis enrolled at Norco. Now, they are like sisters, said Norco coach Rick Robinson.
Willis waits outside Robinson's classroom each morning for Hansen to arrive so they can chat before classes start. They eat together at In-N-Out. They go to football games together. Hansen catches Willis during her pitching lessons. They swim at Hansen's home. Willis, who was uncertain about her status when she enrolled at Norco in 2017, said Hansen is the main reason why she has become as successful as she has.
“We bonded in the bullpen,” said Hansen. “We bond over food. I'm sure we will keep in touch after we go on to college.”
Willis was 25-3 last season, including the 8-2 win over Cerritos Gahr in the Southern Section title game. Willis was 12-8 as a freshman at Ayala in 2017.
Hansen not only has an eye for the ball but also on Willis' pitching mechanics. Willis said Hansen will spot the flaws in her delivery, such as her hand getting on top of the ball that will cause it to bounce. Hansen is expert at framing her pitches and blocking balls in the dirt.
“Some pitchers need to be yelled at. Some need to be encouraged,” Hansen said. “Sarah is both. I need to yell at her when she doesn't make her adjustments. I encourage her when she gets discouraged.”
Robinson said Hansen smoothed Willis' transition to the new school by boosting her confidence.
“Kinzie believes Sarah is better than Sarah believes she is,” Robinson said. “Kinzie made her feel comfortable, that she is part of the family.”
Hansen's influence extends beyond the base lines.
"She's made me a better person in softball and outside the sport … I love her,” Willis said. “There are not many people I would say that about. She's made a great impact on my life. I love that we can work so well together."
Willis is a 5-foot 5-inch, 170-pounder who is not afraid of a basketball injury marring her college scholarship chances in softball. It was fear that caused Willis to become a pitcher. She showed fear of the ball when she started playing at age 4 in Chino. Her coaches put her at pitcher so she would have to learn to catch the ball without hesitation on the return throw from the catcher.
Now, Willis does not wear a mask when pitching. She shows no fear, said Hansen.
Willis does not give way for a designated hitter. She hit .434 last season with six home runs, 10 doubles and one triple. She had two home runs in a 9-0 win over Hacienda Heights Los Altos in the section semifinals last May. She had the game-winning home run for Ayala in a 1-0 win over Los Altos in the quarterfinals in 2017.
Hansen, the catcher for Norco since her first game as a freshman, played in the last two section championship games and has signed a letter of intent to play at Oklahoma.
She batted .519 last season with seven home runs, four triples and five doubles. She was walked 12 times. Hansen said she's not frustrated by the walks, instead taking them as compliment. Hansen has 17 career home runs.
Hansen said she did not anticipate at the start to be close with Willis because she was from a rival travel team. It worked out far better than expected.