It wasn’t too long ago Olivia Hanson was dominating on the field for Eau Claire Memorial.
In 2015, she was the Big Rivers Player of the Year before moving onto a short collegiate career at UW-Eau Claire. Four years later, she’s already back roaming the Old Abes’ field after working her way up to head coach at her alma mater before even graduating college.
“Being around everybody else, I definitely feel young,” Hanson said. “I guess maybe I am.”
At 21 years old, it’s unsurprisingly been a quick rise for the former forward. She first joined Memorial in an official role three years ago, serving as an assistant with the JV program in her first two seasons and as head JV coach her third. When she learned Scott DeRusha was stepping away from the program this summer, she figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw her name into consideration.
“Why not?” Hanson said. “I ended up getting called back for two interviews and I got it. It’s been very surreal. I think it’s finally setting in because the season’s finally here. I can’t believe I have this opportunity to work with such an amazing program.”
It’s fair to say it’s a dream come true.
“I bleed purple,” Hanson said. “Being able to coach at the place that I played, I never even thought that would be a possibility.”
For Hanson, who is going to school for teaching, the leadup to the season and first few weeks have already proved to be training for post-college life. In her final semester, she has only one seminar remaining but spends the rest of her college hours student teaching at DeLong Middle School. She’s certainly not shying away from responsibility.
“Finding a balance has been really helpful,” Hanson said. “It’ll be a nice little practice before the real thing.”
As a coach, she’s trying to show lack of age doesn’t mean lack of experience or expertise.
“She knows a lot,” Memorial senior goalie Leah Hujik said. “There’s actually not a drop off from DeRusha and her, which is super nice to have, to have a really knowledgeable person around. She knows what to look for and is very professional about everything.”
Young coaches often break into the business with a rebuilding program, an athletic department willing to take a bit of a risk on a less proven talent who shows potential. Hanson’s situation is just about the opposite. She inherits the premier team in the area.
Eau Claire has won seven straight Big Rivers titles, five under DeRusha, and went 18-3-1 last season.
The Abes lost their leading scorer, Abigail Stow, to graduation but still return enough talent to compete for the BRC title again. Memorial showed its might in its first game of the season, defeating Menomonie 5-0 thanks to three goals from Lauren Carmody.
Hanson said the connection between her and her players has been an easy and natural process nurtured by familiarity. Many of the underclassmen played for her on the JV team. For the rest, there’s also little separation between themselves and Hanson. She’s gone through many of the same triumphs, and perhaps more importantly, struggles as her players.
“I had torn my ACL going into my freshman year,” Hanson said. “Whenever girls have injuries, I feel their pain in that way. It’s kind of nice that I can talk to them about things like that.”
“We see her as a friend, but we still respect her as a coach,” senior midfielder Molly Graaskamp added. “It’s really easy to connect with her and relate with her and understand what she’s saying because she was just here. ... It was just the perfect choice to have her as a coach.”
Hanson, Hujik and Graaskamp all pointed to her gender as a benefit as well, allowing her to dig even further into the roster’s mental battle.
“She just understands what we think more because female athletes think a lot different than male athletes,” Hujik said. “Having another female athlete around really helps with the mindset part, helps us have that mindset during games.”
Hanson’s graduation from UW-EC is looming, set for this spring. Despite being at a major transition point in her life, she sees an extended future coaching the Old Abes. Hanson said her plan is to start looking for jobs in the Eau Claire district this summer. Then, the youthful bench boss will start filling in with more of her colleagues.
“Hopefully she’ll be around for a long time,” Hujik said.