Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of our series, “Catching Up With,” in which we catch up with some people we’ve covered over the last few decades.

A ball to the head caused Kristy Bernatchez to leave the field for the last time as a North Carolina Tar Heel and head to the emergency room.

It was a segue of sorts. The former Messalonskee field hockey star and Belgrade native has turned the page from the sport she played all her life to medicine, as an aspiring physician’s assistant currently in school at the University of New England and living in Portland.

“By my senior year of college is when I started looking into the medical field,” said Bernatchez, 25, who graduated from UNC in 2017 and began school at UNE in May. “I played around after graduating if I wanted to do medical school or PA school, and I got my physician care experience working at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and then also working in the emergency room (at Southern Maine Health Care) in Biddeford. From that, I decided on PA school.”

Bernatchez, who majored in exercise and sports science, isn’t sure where she’ll want to focus. Emergency medicine is one possibility. Surgery and primary care are on the table as well.

“I’m trying to keep my options open,” she said.

It’s been a change from a life that had field hockey as its driving force. Bernatchez thrived in high school at Messalonskee and had an incredible senior season, one that saw her score 45 goals in 17 games and win the 2012 Miss Maine Field Hockey award.

“Kristy was not just a skill player. She was the all-around amazing athlete that every coach can’t wait for and hopes and dreams to coach,” former Eagles coach Katie McLaughlin said. “She was a selfless player. Even if she knew she could hit a shot through nine defenders and score, if she had a teammate open, she’d make sure to pass it to a teammate because that was the better option.”

The best option, though, was often for Bernatchez to tee up one of her powerful shots. McLaughlin once clocked her at 90 miles per hour.

“She had the most powerful drive we’ve ever seen,” she said. “That power, I still haven’t seen anything like it at the high school level since she graduated.”

Bernatchez’s play with the Eagles and Maine Majestix drew the attention of one of college field hockey’s best programs. She went on to play at North Carolina, where she saw herself surrounded by some of the most talented players in the country.

“On the physical side, the biggest adjustment was how strong and fast everyone was,” she said. “I thought I was strong and fast.”

On top of that, she had to learn a new position. After Bernatchez spent her freshman year at midfield, UNC coach Karen Shelton asked her about moving to left back.

“That’s a pretty tough position, in terms of you’re in the left corner of the field and your stick is on the right side of your body,” she said. “I definitely adjusted, but it took a lot of time.”

Bernatchez had to switch from a predominantly offensive to a defensive mindset, but the position suited her nature as a distributor more than a shot-needy scorer.

“I really liked the technique and the tactics from the back,” she said. “And our coaches gave us a lot of freedom in going up the field, even playing defense, so I never felt like I was being trapped back there.”

Bernatchez started 21 of 23 regular season games as a sophomore, 18 of 22 as a junior and all 22 as a senior, when she tallied three goals and two assists. She also played internationally with the United States U-17, U-19 and U-21 national teams.

“Sometimes it added a little bit of extra stress with school and missing classes and stuff like that, but our coaches and my professors were really helpful in working around that schedule,” she said. “It was definitely an honor to be part of that, but I think I also looked at it as a way to develop myself for my UNC team as well.”

North Carolina field hockey player Kristy Bernatchez, center, cheers on teammates prior to a 2016 game against the University of Maine in Orono. Morning Sentinel file photo

UNC won the ACC championship during Bernatchez’s junior year in 2015, and reached the national championship game that season. The Tar Heels returned to the national championship in 2016, but Bernatchez didn’t join them — during the semifinal victory over Connecticut, she suffered a concussion, and had to sit out both UNC’s 3-2 loss to Delaware and the Junior World Cup immediately after.

That was it for Bernatchez competitively. She was ready.

“I kind of knew that my body was burned out. I had dealt with stress fractures, I had injuries all the time,” she said. “I kind of wanted to get started in a different career. I knew I could always go back if I wanted to, but I wanted to start something else.”

Medicine came calling. Bernatchez took an emergency medical technician class and got her work experience in Boston and Biddeford, and with her interest in health care only growing, enrolled at UNE, with the goal of starting clinicals next May.

“It’s totally school right now,” she said. “We have a couple of weeks off for winter break, but it’s pretty much boot camp.”

With her schedule so busy there’s little time for field hockey, but Bernatchez said that door isn’t closed going forward. She’s coached and worked with players at Saco-based Coastal Field Hockey Club since graduating, and she’s enjoyed staying close to the sport that was her passion for much of her life.

“I really like teaching technical skills. I was always someone that learned by watching others, so I think that’s been pretty cool,” she said. “And then just guiding the players with the recruiting process, because I had so many people that helped me with that.”

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