The ball went flying out of the park like it was shot out of a cannon, soaring well above and beyond the left-field fence.
Chants broke out. The scoring team exploded out of the dugout. It’s a familiar scene in late July, the joy of Little League baseball as teams nationwide vie to reach the 11- and 12-year-old Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
There is one caveat that separates this image from so many others — as the batter circles the bases, a long brown pony tail bobs up and down.
The ball was crushed by a girl.
Central New Jersey's Toms River wouldn’t be one of six teams in Bristol, Conn., for the Mid-Atlantic Regional — the last hurdle before Williamsport following district, sectional and state competitions — without Kayla Roncin, its starting first baseman, one of its best hitters, a relief pitcher and spot starter. In the New Jersey state championship game, the 5-foot-8, 12-year-old sensation blasted a two-run homer — eliciting chants of "Girl Power," "Hit Like a Girl" and "Kay-La Ron-Cin" — and retired the final batter with the bases loaded, clinching a 7-6 victory.
"It was so exciting, it was unexplainable," she said.
Baseball is more than just a hobby for Kayla. She has a personal pitching coach and batting instructor. The Roncin family has a batting cage in its backyard, and after games, Kayla brings a bucket of 100 balls to her father for extra batting practice. She uses the side of her home as a catcher when nobody is around. Football Sundays for her father, Ray, are always interrupted by requests for a catch.
"I'll never say no to her," he said. "It reminds you of the movie 'Hoosiers,' one of those kids who is very self-motivated and disciplined."
The most famous Toms River Little Leaguer — Cincinnati Reds’ All-Star Todd Frazier, the star of the 1998 Little League World Series champion — has been following the team, and tweeted his admiration of Kayla.
"Kayla comes from a great family background," Frazier said in a phone interview. "I remember watching her hit in the cages at 8 years old, knowing she was a talented young lady. I'm very happy for her and can’t wait to see Kayla and Toms River represent in Bristol."
Kayla said she thinks of herself as just one of Toms River's 13 players, and she's seen that way by manager Pete Avallone and her teammates, despite their obvious differences. The team has been together for close to four years, and when Avallone was selecting the team, Kayla was a no-brainer. When she first joined the group, Avallone's son Tyler, an outfielder for Toms River, said some of his teammates were "shocked." But they changed their tune after a few practices.
"She quickly showed she was good enough," he said.
During the regular season, playing for Avallone’s team, she was his best pitcher and hitter. In the fall, Toms River Elite — a travel team Avallone runs — won the Cal Ripken Golden Spike Tournament in Aberdeen, Md., and Kayla was awarded tournament MVP.
"She's just a baseball player on the field," Avallone said. "Obviously, they know she's a girl, but she's treated no differently than the boys on the team. They make fun of her and she gives it right back to them."