COLUMBIA— If you visit a softball practice at Columbia College, you will most likely hear a booming voice after any spectacular play.
It belongs to Joe Henderson, the Cougars' first year assistant coach.
Henderson roams the Cougar Softball Field during practices, stopping only to chat with players or deliver commentary. After Senior Valerie Teter overran a bunted ball, Henderson immediately teased the recent NAIA player of the week.
“Val, way to overrun that ball… oops,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s ribbing is a constant on the field; no player is safe from the 54-year-old hitting coach's playful jabs.
“I love the game,” Henderson said of his 35-year career. “It’s fun to watch, but it’s even more fun to watch when you’re coaching.”
Henderson’s roots in the sport run deep, both as a coach and a player. In 1979, while playing semi-pro baseball, he tried out with the Kansas City Royals.
“It was two weeks. I didn’t make it because I couldn’t hit anything that bent,” Henderson said, laughing. “But I got my player rep card, and even though I didn’t make it, it was an amazing experience, and I had fun doing it.”
When it comes to softball or baseball, fun is what matters to Henderson. Despite setting records for wins during his four-year tenure as the Rock Bridge softball coach, Henderson insists that softball shouldn’t be so serious. When a player is feeling down after a bad play, Henderson is quick to try and cheer her up. He views softball as a sport different from any other and for one reason.
“Softball is a game of failure,” Henderson said. “In softball, if you hit three times out of 10, you’re all-conference. That means I get to fail seven times. If I failed seven times at my job I’d get fired.”
Failure is only celebrated in baseball or softball, according to Henderson. He points to the scoreboard in right field and said that every time someone makes an error, they light up the scoreboard.
“Do they light up the scoreboard for football when someone fumbles?” Henderson asks. “In soccer, do they show every time someone gets a penalty?”
Henderson’s approach has stuck with the Columbia College players. Senior Kacey Rehagen said that she has seen improvement in many of the players, but most of all Henderson has given them more confidence in their hitting approach.
“Joe has a motto,” Rehagen said. “(He) stresses that we’re not trying to be perfect, we’re just trying to maximize our potential.”
Henderson is determined to keep the Cougars, No. 15 in the NAIA, positive and loose as they enter the Midwest American Conference tournament. It could be with a joke, a new comment or even a story about old baseball players — either way, Henderson will get some laughs. He sometimes wonders about the laughter, though.
“I’m the old man of the group,” Henderson says with a chuckle. “Some of them laugh at me because they don’t know what I’m saying.”
The "old man" keeps himself busy. After practice on Thursday he’s off to help coach an 8-and-under softball team, and on Saturday he’ll be supporting the Columbia Rockers, a 12-and-under softball team competing in the May Madness tournament.
But Henderson said that this year coaching at Columbia College has been the most fun he’s ever had. Head coach Wendy Spratt is pleased with Henderson’s efforts.
“He’s bringing in a lot of good recruits for 2012,” Spratt said. “He’s helped a few players with hitting, but it’s been more mental stuff.”
“I do think that I help them more psychologically than mechanically,” Henderson chimed in.
The conference tournament is looming, and the Cougars want to prove themselves as the best team in the AMC. Henderson will keep the mood light, and if the Cougars find themselves trailing, they’ll find no negativity out of Henderson’s mouth.
“Softball is fun,” Henderson said. “You can coach a game, get a hot dog and a coke. What’s better than that?”
For Columbia College: winning the conference tournament.
The Cougars (27-14, 11-3) play a doubleheader against Hannibal-LeGrange (20-26, 4-12) at 2 p.m. Friday in the first round of the AMC tournament.