As Mainers continue to be proud of Enfield native Matthew Mulligan catching a touchdown pass for the New England Patriots, there are also a couple of big local stories in the field hockey world. One has become so routine that we take it for granted. The other, an individual story, is no less mind-boggling.
I know what some of you are saying. I’ve heard the tired jokes about “whistle hockey.” I love watching field hockey, and I love watching baseball and football, too — and both of the latter two sports are a few seconds of action, and then a 20-second pause, and then a few timeouts.
My point is, Kristy Bernatchez and the Skowhegan Area High School team are tremendous stories, no matter what the sport. And guess what? You don’t see anything close to them happening in other team sports at the high school and college level in Maine.
Bernatchez, a Belgrade native and Messalonskee High School graduate, is playing significant minutes as a freshman for the University of North Carolina, which is the No. 1 team in the country. Bernatchez has played nine games, starting two of them, and scored four goals.
Last Friday, the Tar Heels played Virginia, ranked No. 4 in Division I. Bernatchez came off the bench and played 18 minutes in a 2-1 victory.
Now, let me ask you, how often does something like this happen? Obviously, Matt McClintock of Athens and a sophomore on the Purdue University cross country and track and field teams is surpassing that, but that’s an individual sport. Can you imagine a freshman from Maine playing a regular role for the Alabama football team? Can you imagine a senior from Maine doing it? If that happened, no matter what age the young man was, people’s heads would explode.
You can compare Bernatchez to Portland’s Quinton Porter, who played at Boston College and in the Canadian Football League. But Porter threw a total of 20 passes in his first two years at BC. You can compare her to Cheverus graduate Peter Gwilym, who made the football team at Ohio State. But Gwilym is a third-year sophomore who never got on the field in a game the last two years.
I’m not putting down Porter and Gwilym. Their accomplishments are amazing — far above what I or just about anyone else could do, and the kind of thing people dream of. But if their accomplishments are amazing, then what about Bernatchez, a freshman playing key minutes in every game for the No. 1 team in the nation?
Of course, Bernatchez had some advantages most Maine athletes don’t. Her mother, Amy, just happens to be an outstanding field hockey coach. Her parents run a pay-to-play organization that has helped many local players improve their games. They also had the money to send their daughter to camps in other states, giving her a chance to play against a level of competition she couldn’t see around here.
But Bernatchez also put in the work. She wasn’t a great goal-scorer her first two years at Messalonskee. By the time she was a senior, she was setting the state record for goals in a season.
She’s an outstanding player and it’s worth following her progress, because this doesn’t happen very often, at all.
For Skowhegan, the best way to demonstrate what the Indians are doing is that their run passes “the wife test.” My wife is wonderful, but she’s not a big sports fan. But sometimes, there are things you can tell a non-sports fan, and they’ll still be able to understand, even not knowing much about sports.
So if I tell my wife, “Skowhegan has won 11 state championships in the last 12 years, and hasn’t lost the Eastern A title since before Y2K,” she and everybody else understands what that means. There’s a chance my 3-year-old son could understand what that means, although he’d probably just want to watch Caillou.
If Skowhegan field hockey isn’t the greatest dynasty in Maine high school sports, the Indians are at the very least right up there. They send so many players to play in college that a Division I game next Sunday will have seven players on the two rosters.
Skowhegan has also won a state record 66 games in a row. When coach Paula Doughty was interviewed about breaking the record, she said she didn’t care. It sounded flippant, but I know just what she meant.
What Doughty was saying was that a record like that is a great feat, but winning a state title is more important. If the Indians don’t win a state title this year, she probably won’t be comforted that Skowhegan set a new record for consecutive wins. To her, it would be like the Patriots going 18-0, but losing the game that mattered the most.
And at this point, the reality is that’s how most people measure Skowhegan’s season. A state championship is a good year. Anything else is a bad year. That’s an incredible amount of pressure, and they’ve still won Eastern A 12 years in a row.
So there you have it: A young woman from Belgrade playing on perhaps the best college field hockey team in the country, and a dynasty that every team in every sport in the state would love to approach. And if you still want to ignore it because it’s field hockey, well, that’s your loss.
Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243