A team player is defined as a person who plays or works well as a member of a team or group.
Newington’s three-sport star Kaitlyn Bernacki fits that definition to a tee.
The senior has already left her mark on the volleyball and basketball courts at Newington High School and now enters her final softball season.
It’s no surprise that the quintessential team player enjoys playing a trio of sports known for their teamwork.
“I like being around a whole bunch of people,” Bernacki said about her affinity for team sports, “I get really close to almost every person on the team. I like the family aspect. It’s a really nice feeling”
Her unselfish nature has shaped her into a highly-productive player and an even better teammate. Her softball coach, Steve Markie, shared an example of her team-first approach.
“She was the third baseman last year and she decided to move to right field this season, possible to make us the best team we could be,” stated Markie, “She’s willing to put the team ahead of herself, which is phenomenal. You don’t see that with 17 or 18 year-old kids all that much.”
The selfless senior has played all three sports since grade school and has thrived because of her ability to adapt, her competitive nature, and her even demeanor. Regardless of the circumstances, she tries to remain even-keeled on the court or field, never getting too high or too low.
“I’ve been surrounded by boy neighbors,” said Bernacki, who started playing basketball and softball at a young age with those same neighbors, “They definitely taught me to be tough, but not to really show it on my face. Nothing negative comes off.”
While a lot of high school students are searching for an individual identity, Bernacki has found her identity through teamwork. She’s been working with others since the first day she stepped foot into the high school. Whether it’s volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, or softball in the spring---she’s been part of an athletic unit during her entire tenure at Newington.
Bernacki’s older sister, Krystin, was the driving force behind her joining volleyball. The older Bernacki, who is currently a senior and part of the rowing team at Bryant University, was a star-spiker for the Indians when Kaitlyn was in middle school.
Four years later, the younger Bernacki sister has carried on the legacy. This season she was one of six seniors on a team, led by first-year head coach Chris Wanner, who won 16 of 20 regular season games. It was a far cry from the varsity team that failed to win a game during Bernacki’s freshman season in 2012-2013.
“We worked together as a team really well. Our coach pushed us very hard. We had longer practices and we were more into it,” reflected Bernacki, who finished second on the team in digs, “With all six seniors being so close it was easy to be around each other, because we were so experienced. We’ve been playing together since freshman year, which made it easy and we all trusted each other.”
There was a natural transition to the basketball court where she provided instant offense and gave her hardwood team a competitive edge.
“We looked for her to give us some offense this past season. We always looked for her to make an outside shot when we needed it and early in the year she was probably our best scorer,” Newington’s head basketball coach Rick Bangs said, “Kaitlyn is quietly competitive. She just doesn’t like to lose. There would be times when we would be in games and you would see this nature come out in her. She made some plays for us that we really needed in big situations.”
The successes inside the gymnasium were the appetizers to her real true passion, the softball diamond.
“With softball being my favorite sport, I’m definitely taking this season more seriously. I really want to succeed this season. I want the best for all of us,” said Bernacki, who was named a team-captain for her senior season, “We’ve been playing together since we were in the sixth grade. It’s our last time to show what we’ve got.”
Like her coach said, Bernacki has volunteered to change roles this season, all in an effort to better the team.
“We have a very good freshman that is coming up and I know that she has to be in the infield. So I told coach that I can go out in the outfield,” Bernacki said of the position change, “I’ve played there a lot, so I know what to do.”
The hope is that her final high school sports season ends with another tournament run. It was during last season’s tournament that produced her most memorable sports moment thus far.
“We were down by two. I was up with two outs and I hit a triple,” she recalled, “To do that for my team and having the experience of getting that tying run made me very happy.”
Her postseason heroics helped propel Newington to an extra-innings 3-2 win over Ludlowe in the first-round of the Class LL tournament.
The clutch hit was reminiscent of Bernacki’s favorite athlete Derek Jeter, who routinely came up big in crucial moment during his 20-year career. She even wears #2 to pay homage to the recently retired Yankee legend.
The hit was an example of the years of hard work and improvements, especially from the plate, that she has made since she first stepped out on the softball field.
“Her freshman year she came in kind of raw. She was a good athlete, could catch the ball in the outfield and had a pretty strong arm. She was probably one of our better outfielders as a freshman, but her hitting was what you would except from most freshmen,” said Markie, “That’s probably the area that I’ve seen the biggest growth on the field. She’s become a much more confident player, in terms of her hitting and it’s showed. She’s got some power that she never displayed as a freshman or sophomore.”
“She’s very competitive, a great listener, a student of the game,” Markie continued, “She leads by example and has become a great leader for us. She was kind of a quite leader, but last year she stepped up and became much more vocal and outgoing. When I ask someone to do something, she’s always the first one to step up.”
The admiration is mutual. The four-year varsity player credits the coach with helping her blossom into the player she is now.
“Coach Markie has helped me so much in the past four years,” Bernacki stated, “Even in the offseason I can talk to him about absolutely anything. I’m never nervous or hesitant to go up to him.”
She also is thankful for her parents, Joe and Maureen, who have been supportive during her year-round approach to athletics.
“They’ve tried to be there for every single game and after the game my dad will tell me what I have to work on. So will my mom,” she stated, “It has helped having them there, because they are watching me and sometimes I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or developing a bad habit.”
Over the years she has played with countless teammates, many of whom have become close friends, including Alyssa Bellizzi. The two have played all three sports together, developing chemistry during competition and also creating a unique handshake that can only be described as intricate. It involves shakes, taps, gyrations, and even jumping.
“We do that before every game,” Bernacki said with a smile, “We even do it before tests.”
She also routinely bends down to kiss her bat for good luck before stepping up to the plate. The hope is that these rituals, along with a cast of seven seniors, allow the team to go deep into the Class LL tourney this June.
“I do think we have the potential to be better than we were last year. Hopefully we can lean on our seniors to ride out any rough spots. We do return a lot of kids with a lot of playing experience. You hope that when the going gets rough we’ll have those kids to fall back on that have been there before,” said Markie.
The veteran skipper added that it may take the team some time to fill the spots vacated by the key players they lost to graduation. But for now, he’s trying to keep the team in a rhythm after their first week of the regular season was postponed due to Connecticut’s annual April snowstorm.
“It is a very weird start. We’ve had a lot of scrimmages, which has given us the opportunity to grow as a team and we’ve made some huge strides from the first day until now,” Markie continued, “I would love to of had those games under our belts, but hopefully we can keep the momentum going when we come back and we can hit the ground running again.”
Markie’s squad is just finishing up a trip to Florida, where they played a few scrimmages and a game against Plainville at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Before leaving Bernacki described the trip as “so exciting.” It was her second softball adventure to the Sunshine State, also traveling with the team during her sophomore season.
Bernacki and her softball sisters are hoping the trip south is just the beginning to an unforgettable spring.
This time next year Bernacki will be attending Southern Connecticut State University, pursuing a career in education as a kindergarten teacher. But before she can start the next chapter in her life, she has one more sports season to finish.
It’s one more season to play the sport she loves. One more season to lace up the cleats. One more season to share a zany handshake with a friend. One more season to kiss the bat. And one more season to be the best teammate she can be.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin