COLUMBIA — When Marli Hayes steps up to bat, the rest of the team gets ready. They all know what to do.
"No. 9, Marli Hayes," the announcer says. And then, "Hayes," again, this time with an exaggerated inflection, a comical tone.
"What a hitter!" the rest of the team cheers from the dugout.
"That was good," freshman Kaylee Brueggeman says, laughing as she compares this introduction to Hayes' previous ones.
It's a joke among the Columbia College softball team, introducing the junior this way each time she steps up to the plate.
And the whole thing started as a joke, too. The Columbia College announcers noted how Major League Baseball announcers repeat the names of players as they're introduced, so one game, they decided to do it for the next batter that was up for the Cougars.
And it happened to be Hayes.
The "what a hitter" aspect was added based on the movie "A League of Their Own", comparing the character Marla Hooch to Marli Hayes.
It was all coincidental, just for fun. But there ended up being some truth to Hayes' "what a hitter" introduction.
Hayes scoots to the farthest corner of her yard in Jefferson City as her father, Greg Hayes, does the same in the opposite direction.
Marli Hayes scoops up the ball her father threw her way, no problem.
She's 8 years old.
"I was honestly throwing as hard as I could," Greg Hayes said. "She had a really strong arm as an 8-year-old."
They would continue this game of burnout, each throwing the ball to the other as hard as they could until someone dropped it, making that person the loser.
It was the same thing at the batting cages, where Greg Hayes would challenge Marli Hayes and her sisters, Riley and Cheznee Hayes, to see who could hit the farthest, adding playful smack talk.
Greg Hayes and his wife, Sherri Hayes, knew Marli Hayes was a natural.
Greg and Sherri Hayes, who were both athletes in high school and have maintained their competitive spirit, encouraged their daughter to try out for a summer team. She ended up joining the Jefferson City Heat's 12-and-under team.
"We had high expectations for Marli and the team," Greg Hayes said.
They didn't just want her to play, they wanted her to get firmly established in the game.
"Good job, Marli," Brueggeman calls to Marli Hayes from the dugout. Hayes walks back to her position at third base after a successful hit in the previous inning against Missouri Baptist.
Hayes just points up to acknowledge the praise, doesn't even turn around.
It's like it's nothing for her at this point. She's just doing her job.
And after having games every weekend of every summer since she was 8, first for the Jefferson City Heat and then for the Missouri Madness, it's no wonder it's second nature for her.
"That's the cruel world of competitive softball," Greg Hayes said.
And it wasn't just doubleheaders, which many baseball parents think last forever. It was often four or five games a day.
"You brought everything you needed to sustain life for a whole day at the ballpark," Greg Hayes said.
It was such a big part of her life that when Marli Hayes and her 12-and-under Heat team got third place at nationals out of 64 teams, she was upset at the results.
From third base, Marli Hayes launches a wild throw to first, and junior Jamie Holmes is unable to catch the ball.
"Just shake it off," her team tells her. She licks her hand, turns around and assumes her position back at third.
It's not the first time she's messed up. Despite the "what a hitter" hype, Marli Hayes isn't perfect.
She knows this. "There's always slumps through the year," she said.
But that doesn't mean it doesn't bother her.
"I can just tell," Sherri Hayes said of her daughter's frustration. "She always seems to throw the ball a lot harder."
And she'll throw or hit ground balls behind the dugout, biting her lip, wanting that perfect game.
Then she'll be right back up.
An AC/DC song starts playing in Marli Hayes' head.
"I have my dad to credit for that," she says with a laugh.
She needs something to keep her from over-analyzing the pitcher, from anticipating what pitch will be thrown rather than just looking and hitting. So she sticks a song in her head to loosen up.
And she chooses AC/DC, of course, because, "What else is there to listen to?" Greg Hayes said.
"Boys need to play well to feel well, but girls need to feel well to play well," he said.
Marli Hayes steps up to bat against Park University. The "what a hitter" chants follow her as she steps into the batter's box. She says she feels unable to enter without hearing the chant. It gets her comfortable.
She hits a hard line drive, which looks promising until it's snagged and thrown to second for a double play.
It's the last time she'll hit for the season.
But the winner of the season's final American Midwest Conference Player of the Week award, finishing with a .348 batting average, 40 hits and five home runs, had lived up to her "what a hitter" introduction.
And she'll bite her lip, maybe with an AC/DC song in her head, and come right back next year.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.