If she could go back in time, Hensley Hancuff would return to her 16-year-old self and give a simple word of reassurance: “‘You are going to be okay’,” she said. “I would tell myself, ‘Just ride it out. Ride the process out. Everybody has ups and downs, but you are going to be so grateful that you went through all of that.’”
The senior goalkeeper for the Clemson women’s soccer team is nothing short of a star now, with her hopes set on making one last run into the NCAA Tournament with the Tigers and ultimately beginning a professional soccer career. However, Hancuff was asked to weather several storms and overcome significant, life-altering challenges—both on and off the soccer field—to reach this point.
Ever since she was just a toddler growing up in Oklahoma, Hancuff was a highly energized and athletic child. She had so much energy, in fact, that her mom encouraged her to take on gymnastics from a very early age. This allowed her to develop the proper muscles and body awareness for an athletic career, while also serving as a way of tiring her out. However, Hancuff hit a growth spurt around the age of seven and realized she was too tall to be a gymnast. At the same time, her friends were all joining the local recreational soccer team—and she wanted in. She recalls going to a rec game, as a spectator, when one of the teams lost their goalkeeper to injury. They turned to her and offered the chance to take over in goal, which the young Hancuff jumped on immediately.
“They put me in and apparently I was super brave, like saved every single ball,” she remembered. “And so ever since then I have really been a goalkeeper. My mom got me into training with goalkeeper coaches at a very young age.”
Hancuff played both soccer and volleyball in high school, a multi-sport experience which she recognized as essential for all youth athletes in order to fully determine their talents and interests. For her, soccer was undoubtedly her passion; so, in August 2017, she and her family made the decision for Hensley to attend professional goalkeeper training over 1,300 miles away with the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). From there, Hancuff also had the opportunity to train with United States national teams, from U16 through U20, and became a part of the Olympic Development Program National Pool. Although the experience of moving away from home was extremely challenging, Hancuff noticed its positive impact on her maturity and understanding of professionalism.
“Moving to Orlando by myself, I lived with a host family. And my mom was like, ‘Go do your thing. Go blossom,’” she said. “I remember on the first day, I walked up thinking I would probably be off to the side. But after training, I was in the showers with Marta and Alex Morgan singing songs in Portuguese…I grew up watching these women on TV. It really put into perspective what the professional level is like at a young age.”
Everything was trending in the right direction for the teen goalkeeper, who would soon commit to Villanova University—but then it all changed. Prior to her move to Florida, Hancuff had bloodwork done during a routine check-up, which later yielded abnormal results. So, she continued periodical visits after moving. After several tests, she received the crushing news that she would need surgery to remove her ovaries and reduce her risk of cancer later in life. However, following the procedure, the doctors came back with something even more devastating. She had been full of cancer for about a year and a half without knowing it. Yet, more than anything else, Hancuff recognized that she had gotten very lucky with it being detected.
“Having cancer is such a weird thing that not enough people talk about,” she said. “You look death in the face. So being super young, that changed me. Everything else that came along with it, like not being able to get pregnant when I am older and as a woman, that is hard to accept; it was really hard at the time, but it taught me tough lessons.”
At this time, Hancuff was beginning her freshman year at Villanova, where she made frequent visits to the doctor in order to confirm her physical health. But between such a life-altering scare and starting her collegiate soccer career far from home, she relied on her mom and younger brother for motivation and inspiration through the process. “I am a very independent person,” she said. “But they are kind of why I am still here. I would not have been able to go through it without them. My mom would tell me every day to see it out—and she was going through a lot as well, having a child with cancer. So, I just applaud her every single day for her bravery and continuing to motivate me.”
However, upon returning to her soccer training, Hancuff faced more obstacles, this time on the field. She felt that she was out of shape physically and not performing to the standards that she had set for herself. On top of that, she had experienced one of her worst years mentally. So, despite a promising freshman campaign statistically in which she finished with a .800 save percentage and was named to the All-Big East Freshman Team, Hancuff felt the need for a change of environment. Following her sophomore year, the goalkeeper made the decision to enter the transfer portal.
In seeking out a new university, she wanted a soccer program where every individual in the building was the best at their craft—and would push her to be her best, as well. Hancuff immediately recognized the top-notch facilities and coaching that Clemson offered, as she cited Goalkeepers Coach Siri Mullinix as a primary reason why she decided to become a Tiger. She viewed the goalkeeping products that have come out of Clemson in recent years, such as Kailen Sheridan and Sandy MacIver, as her inspiration to work towards.
“I am the type of person that just wants to come out and give my best every day. Now, I am surrounded by people who are the best. I am in the best facilities in the nation, and I have the best coaches,” Hancuff said. “So, there are no excuses for me to not be successful at this level.”
This “no excuses” mentality paid off. In her first season at Clemson, Hancuff excelled, allowing only 11 goals in 1,252 minutes played for an average of just 0.79 goals allowed per game. She played a crucial role in the Tigers’ run to the NCAA Elite Eight, coming up with game-clinching saves against Rutgers and UCLA in penalty shootouts. Entering her senior season, Hancuff is determined to make one final push and she believes that the 2021 Tigers have the team chemistry to do so. For example, she enjoys close friendships with the other goalkeepers, Halle Mackiewicz and Ally Lynch, that extend beyond the field. Now in 2021, she hopes to bring leadership to the locker room.
“Being a transfer, it was harder to be a leader just because you are thrown into the environment. I did not want anyone to think, ‘Who does she think she is?’ So, I really focused on creating relationships with girls on the team to earn their respect and trust. Now, I would like to think of myself as a role model for the younger players. Every person on the team is just so different and unique in their own way, and I love them all as my sisters.”
Following her collegiate career and graduation from Clemson in December, she has her eyes set on entering the NWSL Draft. If that does not pan out, she has the backup plan of competing professionally overseas. But whatever hurdles her future may hold, Hancuff is ready to jump over them.
“I just plan on playing soccer for as long as I can— it is what I love. It is what I was put on this earth to do and to inspire other people through it.”