Amy and Brian Bernatchez were puzzled initially when their daughter Kristy Bernatchez told them she wanted to play field hockey at the University of North Carolina.
Bernatchez had scored a state-record 47 goals as a senior at Messalonskee High School in Oakland and was selected Miss Maine Field Hockey. She was heavily recruited by a number of Division I schools.
But North Carolina was a national powerhouse coached by National Field Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Famer Karen Shelton, who has guided the Tar Heels to six NCAA championships and more than 600 wins in 36 seasons.
There was no way to gauge how much playing time she would receive at a school whose roster was consistently star-studded.
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And Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is 878.7 miles from the Bernatchez household in Belgrade.
“North Carolina wasn’t my top choice. I didn’t want her to go that far away. It wasn’t the best fit for our family,” said the former Amy Corbett, who was an All-Northeast Region first-team All-American at the University of Maine in 1990 and is in the University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame and the Maine Field Hockey Association Hall of Fame.
“She said she wanted to play for the best team she could,” she said. “It was more important for her to be on a good team rather than have guaranteed playing time at another school.”
“She had already been the focal point in high school. She wanted to play at the highest level possible,” said Brian Bernatchez.
Kristy Bernatchez found plenty of reasons to attend UNC.
“They have a beautiful campus, it’s a great school, and you can’t beat it athletically,” said Bernatchez, who accepted a half-scholarship when she could have received a full scholarship to attend another school.
Going into Friday’s game at No. 18 Boston College, Bernatchez had played in 75 of 77 games during her career for the third-ranked Tar Heels. That includes three NCAA Final Fours and one national championship game.
Last fall, Syracuse beat the UNC 4-2 in the final at Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the program’s 10th runner-up finish under Shelton.
A rare opportunity
Bernatchez has been pleased with her decision to attend UNC. On Sunday she will have a rare opportunity to play a collegiate game in her home state when UNC visits UMaine in an 11 a.m. contest in Orono.
“I’m also looking forward to playing in cool air,” Bernatchez said. “It’s been in the 90s down in North Carolina, so they’ve been giving us mandatory water breaks.”
The Bernatchez family will be hosting the entire UNC field hockey entourage for a lobster-and-steak feed on Saturday.
Brian Bernatchez said having his daughter play in Maine is a “dream come true.”
Shelton said arranging for the game in Maine was three years in the making.
“I’m really excited for the state of Maine and all the field hockey people who will be able to get out and see a great game,” added Amy Bernatchez, who said her loyalties will be tested a bit.
“It will be very emotional,” she said. “I’m very proud to be a Black Bear. There are a bunch of [Maine] Majestix players on the Maine team. I have nothing but respect for the job [UMaine coach Josette Babineau] has done for the program.
“I’m a huge Maine Black Bear fan but, on Sunday, I’ll be rooting for the other team,” she added.
Taking one for the team
Kristy Bernatchez has been resilient at UNC. After playing her natural midfield position as a freshman and notching five goals and an assist in 24 games, she moved to defense.
“We were going to have a pretty deep midfield, and they told me I would get to play the whole game, every game, at left back,” said Bernatchez.
“I embraced it,” she added.
That is where she has played ever since.
“She is an awesome player. She has never once complained about not moving forward [to the midfield],” said Shelton. “She has just been happy to help the team in any way she can. She’s a selfless player.
Bernatchez acknowledged that it required an adjustment. She considers left back the “hardest position on the field” because opposing attackers are on the forehand side coming down the right wing at her and she is on her backhand or reverse stick side.
Bernatchez made progress as a junior and has elevated her game further this season.
“Any time you switch positions, you second-guess everything you’re doing,” she said. “But now that it’s my third year at left back, I pretty much know what I’m doing and what the other team is going to throw at me.
“A lot of it has to do with confidence,” she added.
Shelton pointed out that Bernatchez’s ability to drive the ball with authority or make a strong high flip has served her well.
“When she gets pressed in the back, she has the ability to get the ball out over the top or smash it through when necessary,” said Shelton.
After posting one goal and two assists in 45 games during her sophomore and junior seasons, Bernatchez has found herself on the offensive penalty corner unit this season. She has responded with three goals in six games.
Bernatchez also is on the defensive penalty corner unit.
“We’re playing with four in the back instead of three so we can attack more on the outside,” said Bernatchez, an exercise and sport science major who also is a member of the United States Under-21 National Team.
Bernatchez listed beating top-ranked Syracuse 2-1 in overtime in last year’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and then playing the Orange again the NCAA title game as her top career highlights.
She had the opportunity to face her older sister Katie Bernatchez and her Boston University team in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, and UNC triumphed 4-2.
“That was bittersweet,” said Kristy Bernatchez.
Reunion of Majestix proportions
Brian and Amy Bernatchez founded the prestigious Waterville-based Maine Majestix field hockey club program in 2007 that has produced several Division I players.
UMaine has four Majestix players on its roster in Belfast’s Maddy Cummings, Sidney’s Riley Field, Clinton’s Lilla Tilton-Flood and Norridgewock’s Adriana Martineau.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Kristy Bernatchez.
“This will be good for field hockey in Maine,” added Bernatchez, who also is anxious to see her friends on the Maine team.
“I’ve never been in the great state of Maine. We’re all very, very excited about it,” said Shelton.
Bernatchez and Shelton expect a battle from the Black Bears.
“Maine’s going to be a tough opponent on their home field. We know we’re going to be for a dogfight,” said Shelton.
“We know they’re going to be aggressive and feisty,” said Bernatchez.