OKLAHOMA CITY — Haley Hayden showed up at Louisiana-Lafayette, and the tear-down began.
So, you were an All-State pitcher at West Monroe? Take this mitt. Go play center field.
You hit over .500 and drove in 100-plus runs? Meet coach Mike Lotief in the cages. He’s gonna make a few changes.
Nine months later, the freshman is part of an underclassmen trio that puts a surge into the lineup for the Ragin’ Cajuns — a core held in check against Kentucky in a Women’s College World Series opener Thursday and needed against Oklahoma at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
If Hayden, Lexie Elkins and Samantha Walsh can’t find uncorked swings against the Sooners (50-12) that were stifled Thursday, fleeing the losers bracket of the WCWS may be nixed.
Granted, taking stock of Hayden — who checks in at 5-foot-4 — may not bolster much confidence.
But a fall spent in the batting cage with Lotief, a hitting guru whose tweaks skew towards a biomechanical breakdown, has produced a metrics that belie Hayden’s stature. Try a .329 batting average, 14 home runs and 55 RBIs.
“You have so much power now when you make contact,” Hayden said. “It flies off the bat if you do it right.”
Asking Hayden to spew specifics, though, doesn’t produce much.
“He changed how I stood, how to get to the ball,” Hayden said. “He condensed my swing to make it shorter to get to the ball. There’s still things he teaches me every single day.”
Lotief, meanwhile, still skews his assessment of Hayden’s season — one where she landed on the All-Sun Belt Conference team — to proper psychology. Perhaps he’s protecting trade secrets, but Lotief said what he inherited was a solid template to work with.
“I don’t think people understand. They don’t care if you’re a freshman or senior,” he said. “It’s your toughness, your mind set, your willingness to work and pay the price.”
Twenty-one games into the season, Hayden was hitting .380 with nine home runs and 25 RBIs. Numbers made all the more gaudy by her admitting she could “barely hit the broad side of a barn” during fall ball.
“I felt like I was in Tee Ball again,” Hayden said. “If you put it up there, I probably couldn’t hit it.”
Yes, there was a slight dip over 22 games, a stretch where she was batting .256 and her power numbers dipped, as she adjusted to occupying a greater portion of foe’s scouting reports.
Hayden simply says it was self-imposed ignorance — “I don’t really look at stats,” she said — that kept a full-blown slump at bay.
Instead, she’s simply become a cog.
Since April 26, Hayden was hitting .354 over the 15 games leading up the Cajuns’ return to Oklahoma City after a six-year absence. But she only hit two home runs and knocked in six runs.
Now, she sets the table for Walsh, Elkins and Redfearn, a trio behind her in the order that’s clicked to club seven home runs, drive in 16 runs and slug .833 during the NCAA tournament.
“It’s not about getting the big hit,” Hayden said. “I just want to get on base for the people behind me. Let them take the big swing.”
Digging in against the Sooners, the Cajuns hope that resumes and that Thursday was an aberration.
Follow Matthew Harris on Twitter: @MHarrisAdvocate.