Dunkirk star Emilee Hanlon makes Division 1 aspirations come true

Division 1 Bound

OBSERVER Photo by Braden Carmen Dunkirk softball star Emilee Hanlon, center, signed her letter of intent to play Division 1 college softball at the University of Tennessee last Wednesday, while accompanied by her father, Matt (left), and her mother, Kim (right), at Dunkirk High School.

In the world of sports, Western New York has always been overlooked. From the struggles of the national sports franchises in the area, to the disrespect shown to small schools on the high school level when postseason seedings are released, Western New York has never received the recognition it deserves.

Emilee Hanlon may have just changed that.

Dunkirk’s star athlete, Hanlon, had her dedication on and off the field finally pay off last Wednesday, when she signed her letter of intent to play Division 1 college softball at the University of Tennessee. Like much of the journey, Hanlon was surrounded by her family, friends, administrators and coaches at Dunkirk High School when the signing took place.

Hanlon, who many recognize for her accomplishments as a state champion in track, followed her heart and made her dream of playing softball — her favorite sport — at the highest level of collegiate athletics come true.

Though she had college offers for track, she always wanted softball, and she always wanted Tennessee. Wednesday, she made it official and made both of those dreams come true.

“Right from the get-go, it was my top school that I wanted to go to,” said Hanlon. “I had some offers for track, but softball is my heart. Softball is my whole world. I wouldn’t choose anything over it.”

Coming from an area like Dunkirk, in the grand scheme of things, makes receiving a D1 offer from a nationally relevant college program very challenging. The burden fell on Hanlon’s shoulders, and she — with the help of her family and friends — made her aspirations come true.

“A lot of coaches in general won’t come down to a little area (like Dunkirk) to watch a league high school game or anything like that,” said Hanlon. “As an athlete, you have to be the one to go out and get them. A lot of kids don’t go out and get them. They don’t send the emails, they don’t do the phone calls and that has a lot to do with it.”

Hanlon’s dedication to the little things that go into the recruiting process off the field made her stand out to recruiters even more.

“On the long car rides, I’ll be doing my homework, I’ll be sending out emails in the car. … It has to do with the dedication, wanting to do something. Wanting to reach your end goal,” said Hanlon.

After her first complete season of varsity softball — as an eighth grader — was complete, Hanlon began to focus on the college recruiting process. She played travel softball in the offseason, in addition to her softball season at Dunkirk, and along with her track career, as well. Her travel softball team took trips all across the country, but one trip in particular stood out enough to catch the attention of the Lady Volunteers of Tennessee.

“I got noticed in Florida at the ESPN Center,” said Hanlon. She was in center field, the position she plays for her travel team, rather than her high school position of shortstop. Hanlon smiled as she said, “They don’t even know I play infield in my high school season.”

Tennessee, a school in the Southeastern Conference, is nationally recognized as an athletic powerhouse. This is, after all, the school that Peyton Manning, Jason Witten and Reggie White played college fooball for. It is also the school where legendary coach Pat Summit set the all-time wins record in women’s college basketball. Needless to say, Tennessee is a big deal when it comes to college sports. Now Dunkirk’s very own star will have her opportunity to attend, thanks to her hard work both on and off the field.

The fact that many athletes around the area may never get an opportunity to do what Hanlon is doing is not lost on her.

“It means a lot to me because I know these kids down here don’t see a lot, around town or anything, and for me to be going somewhere else, other than staying here, it gives them a little more encouragement to go out and try new things,” said Hanlon.

As her storied high school athletic career is entering its final chapter, Hanlon’s college career is about to begin, both on the field and off. Hanlon plans to study pharmacy at Tennessee, while staying equally focused on roaming the outfield for the Lady Vols. If her high school career is any indication, Hanlon seems up to the task.

Last Wednesday was a day of celebration, a long time coming for Hanlon. Surrounded by a sea of orange and white filling the room, Hanlon’s closest friends and family erupted as she finally put pen to paper and made her dream of D1 college softball official. It was a fitting ending for a long and arduous process.

“From the help of all my family and my friends that kept encouraging me to keep going, even when times got hard, I feel like I’m doing this for them,” said Hanlon. “They deserve this.”

Hanlon certainly deserves it, as well. Yet the humble high school phenom had nothing but praise for all who helped her dream come true.

“Thank you to all my family and my friends, everybody who has been here along this long journey, who has been encouraging me throughout this entire long process, since my freshman year, it means more than enough to me.”

Twitter: @bradencarmen