ORONO — It took until the middle of her senior season, but on Sunday, Belgrade native Kristy Bernatchez finally played a college field hockey game in her home state.

“First one. Last one, too,” Bernatchez said in the aftermatch of North Carolina’s 3-1 win over Maine.

A Messalonskee High School graduate, Bernatchez started at left back for the Tar Heels. With Bernatchez the main draw, the announced attendance of the game was 657, by far the largest crowd this season at the University of Maine Field Hockey Complex. Bernatchez’ mother, Amy, was a standout field hockey player at Maine and is in the school’s athletic hall of fame (”My mom, it was hard for her, she didn’t know who to cheer for, but she was cheering for us,” Bernatchez joked). Many players from area high schools and the Majestix, Bernatchez’ former club team, came out to see the former Miss Maine Field Hockey and the No. 3 ranked Tar Heels.

“It was good to have such a great turnout of people,” Bernatchez said. “All the Majestix kids that came out, it was cool.”

One of those Majestix kids was lined up across from Bernatchez, playing for the No. 20 ranked Black Bears. Maine freshman Riley Field played one season of high school field hockey as Bernatchez’ Messalonskee teammate, when Field was a freshman and Bernatchez a senior.

“I always looked up to Kristy as a player, through high school and Majestix. It was cool playing right against her, too, because she’s on the left and I’m on the right,” Field said.

The win improved the Tar Heels to 6-2 heading into Friday’s big game against Syracuse, the team that defeated North Carolina in the national championship game last season.

“We try to take it one game at a time, but you know everyone has the goal to get back to the final four,” Bernatchez said.

Since moving from the midfield to the back as a sophomore, Bernatchez has become one of UNC’s steadiest and most dependable defenders.

“You saw today. She’s got some skill, which makes her hard to defend. If an attacker presses too aggressively, she just pulls around them and goes,” UNC coach Karen Shelton said. “She’s a handful, and I think she’s matured an awful lot. You can see, she doesn’t turn the ball over much, and she’s pretty experienced and disciplined. It’s a good and comforting feeling for us that we have a solid backfield.”

Playing left back, Bernatchez helped keep the Black Bears from sustaining offensive push. Shortly after the Tar Heels scored to take a 1-0 lead with 27:56 left in the first half, Bernatchez cut off the Maine attack in the middle of the offensive zone, at the top of the circle, taking the ball from Sydney Veljacic to start the Tar Heels in transition.

Shelton said Bernatchez was moved to the back out of neccessity.

“We needed her back there. It’s not easy to have really strong backs. She’s got good size (Bernatchez is 5-foot-7). She’s solid and steady. She has the demeanor for a backfield player,” Shelton said.

“It was hard at first, just getting used to having to play more defensively and not being able to push up as much,” Bernatchez said of the position change. “I’m definitely used to it now, and comfortable.”

Bernatchez scored 47 goals her senior season at Messalonskee, setting a state record. No matter what position she plays for the Tar Heels, those skills just don’t atrophy. Bernatchez’ stickwork skill helps evade pressure, and helps UNC quickly go from defense to offense.

“She’s got those offensive skills that a lot of times defenders don’t have. They’re the big hitters, but she’s got some finesse, and that gives her an extra dimension,” Shelton said.

Shelton has found ways to use Bernatchez offensively, particularly on penalty corners. Sometimes, Bernatchez acts as the inserter on penalty corners. Other times, she’ll line up on the right wing, crashing hard to get after rebounds. With three goals, Bernatchez is fourth on the Tar Heels in scoring this season.

Field credited Bernatchez with intoriducing the reverse chip, a backhand shot, pulled to the reverse side, to Maine high school field hockey, and spoke of her former teammate as an innovator and pioneer.

“Kristy’s always been a finessey player, a really high skill level. Good decision making, good speed,” Field said. “We all kind of built off that. In high school, Coach (Messalonskee coach Katie McLaughlin) would always reference her. I think that’s what Messalonskee’s built around, the skill she brought to that high school team.”

The Tar Heels began the season as the preseason No. 1 in the country, but opened the season with a 1-0 loss to No. 10 Michigan. UNC won five games in a row before Friday’s 2-1 loss at No. 18 Boston College. Bernatchez hopes Sunday’s win over the Black Bears is the start of another strong run for the Tar Heels.

“We had a rough first game. I wasn’t really expecting that out of Michigan,” she said. “There’s just kind of been a learning curve. We have some new faces and key players. Most of it all controlable things we can fix.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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