By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – Mary Hayes Johnson couldn’t help but learn to grow up in a competitive family.
Her grandfather Bobby Joe was a legendary football coach of the Cherokee County Warriors for 26 years (1966-91). Her father Marc and Uncle Brad were both Warrior and Auburn football standouts in the 1980s. Mother Katharine was a cheerleader at Auburn.
Mary Hayes’ older sister Laney Kate had the opportunity to play basketball at Birmingham Southern, but decided to just be a student at Auburn. Currently, her older brother Whit is a wide receiver with the Tigers.
Now it’s Mary Hayes’ turn to show what she can do at the next level. Last year’s Class 4A state triple jump champion, third place 100-meter runner, and this year’s fifth place heptathlon finisher signed a scholarship with the University of South Alabama on Monday morning.
“Whenever you hear ‘I’m proud of you’ from my family, it means they’re really proud. They don’t just throw that out there,” Mary Hayes said. “I can count on one hand how many times that’s been said to me. It’s taught me a lot being around them. They’ve had experience and it kind of prepares me for what to expect.
“That’s really been a next step for me. I’ve always wanted to do something in college sports-wise. It’s normally always been basketball, but track really came out of the blue last year. I really never thought I would be a D-1 athlete, but it feels good.”
“She’s our first one with track and we are so proud and thrilled for her,” mother and Lady Warrior track and field coach Katharine Johnson said. “She’s got what it takes, that inner-self, that inner-drive you have to have for track, especially at the next level. I’m super proud of her and her work ethic.”
South Alabama made a last-minute scholarship offer to get Mary Hayes. She was originally going to decide between the University of Alabama at Huntsville and Jacksonville State, but that was before she took a visit to Mobile.
It was a visit that swept her away.
“They came in the week before I was trying to decide,” Mary Hayes said. “Whenever I first got there, I was just going to go see, but it really shocked me. I just love the program and the people. It just felt like it could be a home for me.
“I prayed a lot because this was a really big decision. I asked God to make it clear, that there wouldn’t be any question, and He did. I’m very grateful.”
“When we got back from that South Alabama visit, she was like ‘Mom, this is it. This checks all my boxes,’” Katharine said. “The coaches are great. It’s a beautiful campus. They have a great track program. We’re excited to be a part of it.”
Katharine said Mary Hayes’ competing in the heptathlon last May helped open the scholarship doors for her.
“Coach (CM) Sanford worked with her on hurdles and Coach (Colin) Perry with high jump and long jump. That’s really what got her noticed,” Katharine said. “Fast is fast, but at the D-1 level, she’s got to be versatile. That’s what’s really gotten her noticed up to this point, that versatility. She ran 2:34 in the 800 and never really trained for it. Hurdles are such a technical event, and I just thank Coach Sanford so much because he has really helped her grow and improve in the hurdles.”
“One of the reasons they want me is because I can do anything really,” Mary Hayes said. “They just said they were going to wait around and see what I do best in (this spring). They’re going to see how I perform this season. They’ll kind of base it off that.”
But for now, Mary Hayes has basketball season to prepare for. The Lady Warriors’ first game of the 2023-24 season is Tuesday at Sylvania.
“I am very relieved now that I have signed. Now I can enjoy my senior year. I don’t have to be stressed out now,” she said.