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Hanson steps up for No. 12 Swarthmore in win over No. 11 Johns Hopkins

01/11/2023, 2:15am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Cal Hanson probably shouldn’t even be at Swarthmore. 

He only even heard of the school because his girlfriend’s dad went there in the 1980s, when the high-academic liberal arts college in Delaware County had the furthest thing from a quality men’s basketball program. It was all the way across the country from his home in rural Sonora, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, two hours due east of San Francisco.

Cal Hanson (above) had the best game of his freshman year on Tuesday night against No. 11 Johns Hopkins. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

On top of that, his main tryout in front of the coaching staff came when he was sick and shot the ball about as poorly as he could.

“There was actually a moment where I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to play here,” he said. 

And yet…

There was Hanson, in a Garnet uniform, scoring 16 points for the No. 12 Garnet in a 53-46 win over No. 11 Johns Hopkins at Tarble Pavilion on Tuesday night. In a matchup of two of the best programs in the Northeast, both stocked with upperclassmen talent, the freshman guard was the only player all evening to shoot it well — the only one who took more than four shots and still hit more than half of them.

A year after being not sure if he was good enough to play at Swarthmore, the 6-foot-1 guard is in a starting role for the Garnet (12-1, 6-0 Centennial), though his night against Hopkins saw him set all sorts of new career standards: points (16), minutes (29), shots made (6) and attempted (9), 3-pointers made (4) and attempted (6), plus three rebounds.

“It’s just been a dream,” he said. “Going into the season I had no idea exactly what it would look like, but to be a part of this program and to really feel like I’m getting better and also making my teammates better every day, that’s I think where I take the most joy from; putting on the Swarthmore practice jersey every day we don’t have a game.”

Hanson’s got basketball in his blood, his mother (Charmon Logan) playing at Pacific, where she was a two-time Player of the Week in the Big West Conference and made the league’s all-freshman team. Though Sonora’s not a hoops powerhouse in the Golden State, it’s certainly a respectable program, winning 28 games his sophomore year, his first on varsity; as a senior, he led them to a 26-4 record, averaging 19.1 ppg.

It was in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school that Hanson first heard about Swarthmore, and added it to the list of high-academic colleges in the Northeast that he was sending emails to, along with some tape, and an introduction. Swarthmore and others got back in touch, and he was intrigued enough by Swat to fly out to Philadelphia for the one-day elite camp the program hosts each fall. 

But it wasn’t until he was actually on that plane that Hanson actually read the info sheet about what Swarthmore basketball had become under Landry Kosmalski, how the Garnet men had made it to the national championship game in 2019, how they’ve made it to the Sweet 16 three times in the last five years, how they’ve been to the NCAA Tournament each year it’s been contested since 2017.

Hanson (above, right) ended the game with a bandage over his right eye, a token of the physicality of Tuesday's matchup. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Then he arrived to the elite camp under the weather, which didn’t help during a key drill, a 90-second 3-point shooting drill, where Kosmalski said most campers hit between 15 and 20 shots. Colson hit five. 

And yet…

“What really caught my eye at camp, actually, is I think he’s got good feet,” Kosmalski said. “Most fans are like, what does that mean? But I think his feet, defensively, offensively with the dribble, I just think he’s got really good feet. He didn’t even shoot it great at camp [...] but we just liked the way he competed. 

“He was really locked in, really focused kid, played hard, had good feet. That was about it.”

Kosmalski and his staff didn’t offer Hanson a roster spot that day, but they kept in touch, kept recruiting him for the next couple months, until they officially told him they’d love to see him in Delco. He applied during the second Early Decision period, found out in February, just ahead of Senior Night at Sonora, that he’d been accepted.

“It was a dream come true in a lot of respects,” he said. “Both to be able to play at a program of this caliber but to be able to go to a school like this, where you’re challenged academically every day. It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

Hanson arrived at Swarthmore in August one of six freshmen on the Garnet roster, a class Kosmalski made sure to praise several times in a post-game interview Tuesday night. He began the season deeper in the rotation, playing 10 minutes in each of Swat’s first two games and then single-digits without a point scored in the next three. Then came five points in 16 minutes against Muhlenberg and a scoreless 12 minutes against Haverford.

It was at that point, for a Dec. 3 game against Dickinson, that Kosmalski decided to put Hanson into the starting lineup, sensing something was changing in his approach. He played increased minutes in the five minutes prior to the Hopkins game, including his first three games with 20+ minutes, but still hadn’t taken more than six shots or scored more than seven points in a game.

“I brought him in to show him some film after our McDaniel game, which was a week ago, and I said, it seems like something’s clicked,” Kosmalski said. “And he said ‘yeah, the last four days I felt really good.’ So to me that means he’s not thinking, he’s just playing. I think that’s when they get over the hump — there’s no thinking involved, everything’s habit and they can go be the player he’s always been. I think he’s clicked recently, and obviously it showed tonight.”

Hanson (above) hit four 3-pointers in the win over Hopkins. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

In a game where Swarthmore shot 30.8% from the floor (20-65) and Hopkins 25.4% (17-65), Hanson’s 6-of-9 performance was the clear outlier, and his shots were all big ones. His first 3-pointer, late in the first half, helped the Garnet take a 25-18 lead into the break after they were trailing; two more triples in an 80-second span turned a one-point edge into a 33-26 advantage with 12:11 to play. His fourth made it 46-40 with 4:13 to play; his final shot, a long two-point jumper, kept it at a six-point edge with 2:53.

Swarthmore might not need Hanson to score 16 points in any contest again this season — even after his career high, he’s still ninth on the team in scoring (4.2 ppg) — but they’ll take it; that’s part of the ethos of Kosmalski’s program, which isn’t surprised when anybody in its rotation goes off, even if players like Vinny DeAngelo (16.3 ppg) and George Visconti (13.5 ppg) who tend to do so more often. 

But certainly, Hanson isn’t worrying anymore if he belongs or what comes next, other than figuring out what to major in; he said a double-major in economics and political science is most likely. He described it as having the “cult vocabulary of Swarthmore men’s basketball ingrained” — a comparison Kosmalski mostly disagreed with: “I wouldn’t say it’s like a cult — although in some ways, it is, we joke about that,” the coach said.

Whatever it is, it’s a complete buy-in that Kosmalski’s developed in his 11 years with the program, and Hanson’s all-in. They’ll take their next game, against Centennial basement dweller Washington College (Md.) on Thursday, as seriously as the one against another top-15 foe, and on from there.

“A teammate and I were actually talking today about how this is the least stressed we’ve ever felt in a basketball program of any kind, because you don’t feel the weight of the world on your shoulders to perform well, because you know at any time you’re going to have four guys on the court who are going to be there,” Hanson said. “It’s not one guy, it’s a conglomerate.”

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