GORHAM — In that moment, the coach became the competitor.
Kat McKay — the mother, wife and coach — is still an athlete, and a formidable foe. This week, another notch in the belt of her successful return to playing the game she loves came at the expense of a former player, Kylie Martin.
A year ago, when the pair said goodbye after McKay coached Martin at Poland Regional High School for the last time, little did they know they'd meet again — as opponents.
Martin is now a freshman pitcher for Bates College. McKay, a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine. The teams squared off in a doubleheader at the USM campus Thursday.
"I knew if I focused too strongly on the fact that she was my high school coach, I would probably do worse than if I was to think about her being just another player," Martin said. "When she approached the plate, I wouldn't try to make eye contact and wouldn't process in my head that this was my high school coach. I just pitched."
Martin struck out McKay looking early in the game Thursday, but McKay got payback in the fifth, drilling a two-run home run off the scoreboard in left field.
"In the back of my head, I always want what's best for her and any of my kids that I coached," McKay said, a smile creeping onto her face. "But, yeah, it felt good, I'm not going to lie.
"She struck me out prior, too, and I had to get her back. "
Return to the field
McKay returned to life as a softball player at the college level this season, competing with and against players she once coached, athletes much younger than herself, but it's an opportunity that McKay has coveted for a decade.
"When Coach (Sarah) Jamo approached me, I kind of laughed at her," McKay said. "I said, 'I'm 30 years old.'"
McKay graduated high school in 2003 and never played college softball — hard to believe considering McKay was Miss Maine Softball as a senior and likely would have thrived at the college level.
Life took a different path, though. She focused on her family, and being a softball coach, over the past decade. Any hope of a college career was not only put on hold, but seemingly shelved.
McKay and Jamo had briefly been AAU teammates in high school. McKay — the wife, the mother, the coach — said there was no way it could happen. But the athlete and competitor that still lingered was determined to find a way.
"Softball is my passion," McKay said. "It's what makes me tick. It's always been in my head that I wanted to come back, but I didn't think it was a reality."
Now she's donning the USM uniform and playing first and third base — or wherever the Huskies have her play. For now, she's sacrificing her coaching career and juggling all her roles, but she's seizing an opportunity, something she'd advise her players or her children to do in a heartbeat.
"It's been great," McKay said. "The girls have been fantastic. They've really been welcoming. I'm not living with any, 'I wish I had played softball,' anymore. I'm doing it.
"It's been great to coach the last couple of years, and I miss that so much, but playing is where my heart is."
Miss Maine Softball
McKay was a three-sport athlete at St. Dom's, earning all-star honors in soccer, basketball and softball. She was an all-state goalie and captain in the fall, and was a McDonald's Basketball All-Star and captain for the hoop team.
Her signature sport, though, was softball. She was a standout catcher for a successful Saints team. St. Dom's sent to the Western Class C final four times and won the state title in 2001 (and lost the state game in 2002). McKay was selected as the state's top softball player her senior year.
She thought about going to Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., but changed her mind. She took a year off, then went to Central Maine Community College and played basketball. She got married, in 2006 and had two boys.
"I wasn't ready for college," McKay said. "When I went to CM, I got my associates and thought I'd be done. I came to the realization after being home for five years that I needed to go back to school and get a full time job and contribute to the family finances."
She coached softball at St. Dom's before taking the varsity job at Poland, where she coached the last four seasons. Last year, she went back to school and was also hired as the assistant athletic administrator at St. Dom's. She's working on her bachelor's degree in leadership and organizational studies.
The tug of softball
"I knew she had eligibility and I've known Kat for a little bit," Jamo said. "So I approached her about it. I was like, 'What do you think, kid?' She came out this fall and it worked really well. She's been tremendous for us. I'm excited about it. She's finally getting the opportunity, and she should."
McKay had the opportunity to play last year but didn't think she could make it happen. Turning down the chance a second time wasn't going to occur.
"I thought about playing last year but it just didn't work with the family dynamic," McKay said. "This year, it just happened to. I have a lot of help with my kids. My husband (Jared) has been great through all of this, and so has my boss at work."
McKay said her life has little room for error. She works or has classes during the day, practices or games in the afternoon and evenings, and homework at night. Road trips and the team's spring jaunt to Florida only complicate life further.
"It's definitely a balancing attack, especially when you take a full course load and you're working and being a mom and a wife," McKay said. "It's been difficult. I've been really thankful for all the people that have helped me with my kids. That's the biggest juggling act. With work and school work, I don't get much sleep."
If she wasn't coaching at the high school level, she was playing the game at the recreational level. Since high school, McKay has never been far from a softball field.
But jumping into the college game was no easy transition.
"The ball comes a lot faster," McKay said. "It's been an adjustment for me going from slow pitch to fast pitch. The coaches have been working with me and it's starting to come around."
Through 14 games with the Huskies, McKay is hitting .286 with two homers and eight RBIs. She's also scored nine runs. She brings a solid bat and glove to the Huskies lineup, and also a veteran presence.
"You talk about leadership and you talk about maturity and calmness, you know Kat's going 100 percent and it's all out all the time," Jamo said. "The girls and her have been great. It's really been a lot of fun. "
After having focused on the coaching side of the game for the past decade, McKay is excited to see it as a player again. She knows she'll be back coaching at some point, but right now, she's enjoying playing and learning the game again.
"It's been kind of nice to learn from other coaches," McKay said. "I get to see what they do and why. It's nice to be on the player side of things.
"I wasn't sure how that would be. I thought I might have a hard time listening to a coach again. Honestly, these coaches are fantastic, and I'm learning a lot from them. I'm just sitting back and enjoying the ride."
Jamo says McKay still has a coaching presence on the Huskies and that's a great asset for her team.
"The girls definitely respect her and will go to her," Jamo said. "It's like having another coach physically on the field."
One of the first people that McKay contacted when she decided to play at USM was Mary Caron. McKay played with Caron's sisters in high school, and had coached Mary at St. Dom's.
"So now I've hit all three Carons, which is pretty amazing," said McKay, who was teammates of Sarah and Renee at St. Dom's. "That was something I approached (Mary) about before the season. I let her know first. I didn't want it to be weird for her. I wanted her to act like I'm a teammate and not like an old coach."
Caron joined the Huskies last season and is now a senior captain on the team. She's one of the team's top players, earning Little East Conference Player of the Week honors recently.
"She's probably known me since I was eight or 10," Caron said. "So it's pretty interesting, but I was excited because I grew up around her. I knew what she could do. So it's nice being a teammate of her and not just someone watching her play."
Being the starting shortstop, Caron is often relaying ground balls to McKay at first or side-by-side when McKay is at third. Since Caron is a team captain, McKay makes sure she gives due respect to Caron.
"I love it actually," Caron said. "It's nice to see someone, a veteran and someone who I look up to and trust, on the field. She's been awesome and a leader on and off the field. Everyone loves following her and seeing her play."
McKay knew there would be all kinds of interesting dynamics with her playing on a team that included former players and athletes a decade younger.
"I wasn't sure how accepting the girls were going to be when I came here as a 30-year old woman," McKay said. "They have really just brought me in as one of the team. I feel like one of the girls. They razz me a little bit about my age, but it's been a good thing."
The experience allows McKay to feel a little younger, enjoying the camaraderie of her young teammates while just enjoying the game again.
"My immaturity shows a little bit," McKay said with a laugh. "I'm away from my kids. I don't have to be Mom. I don't have to be Coach. So my immaturity definitely comes out sometimes, but this is definitely where I want to be."
McKay says future softball seasons are up in the air. She gave up her Poland coaching job in order to play. Her future as a coach or as a player will depend on variables when the time comes. Caron and McKay are two of just four seniors on the Huskies. Both would be eligible to play next season on what could be a formidable Huskies team.
"I have one more year of eligibility," McKay said. "Coach Jamo keeps putting it in my head to play one more year. I don't know if I can pull that off."