MCKENZIE MILLER

Croatan senior McKenzie Miller, seated center, is signing on to play softball for Fayetteville Tech Community College next year. Others in the photo are, left to right: sitting, mother Sarah and father Steve Miller; standing, Croatan Principal Kay Zimarino, Athletic Director Dave Boal, brother Broderyk Miller, Croatan softball coach Lindsey Gurley, Fayetteville Tech softball coach Miguel Justiniano, Croatan assistant softball coach Jimmy Davis and assistant coach Randy Gurley. (Contributed photo)

OCEAN — Sometimes a nudge from a coach is all a player needs to realize she is college sports material.

Recent Croatan graduate McKenzie Miller didn’t have any softball plans a month before graduation.

That changed during exams when she signed on to play at NJCAA Division II Fayetteville Tech Community College next spring. Miller was all smiles at her signing day, just days before her high school graduation.

“This has all happened so quickly,” she said. “I visited two weeks ago (before exams). It was a really nice put-together campus. I really liked the way it felt there.”

Originally planning on taking classes at Carteret Community College, Miller got in touch with Fayetteville Tech coach Miguel Justiniano through a mutual acquaintance and wound up getting an academic scholarship to play as a Trojan.

“East Carteret Alex O’Neal’s dad is friends with the assistant coach there, so that was my in,” Miller said. “I started talking with coach (Justiniano), and it all took off from there.”

Miller was a standout at multiple positions for Croatan, but she has been targeted by the next level for her pitching skills.

“I’ll have to earn my spot, but I know they want to try me at pitcher,” Miller said. “Hopefully I can be useful anywhere they put me.”

Croatan softball coach Lindsey Gurley added, “McKenzie is another one of those girls that has played a lot of positions for me. She was new to the area when she started as a freshman, so we tried her at outfield and then second base. Her sophomore year, she started pitching, and then she started getting better and better. She has a lot of movement on her ball, and she has a lot of pitches.”

As a senior, Miller racked up 18 hits, six RBIs and four stolen bases. There were no pitching statistics available.

“She’s right-handed normally, but she’s a strong lefty hitter,” Gurley noted. “She’s been determined to work on her bat the last four years. She has made incredible improvements, especially her senior year.”

Miller was part of Gurley’s first graduating class. The Cougars have improved every year since Miller and Gurley arrived in 2016. They went 0-15 the first year before rapidly improving, finishing 2-16 in 2017, 7-14 in 2018 and 9-9 this spring.

“No one thought we were going to do that, and those seniors were a huge part of it,” Gurley said. “This (senior) group means a lot to me because I’ve coached them for four years. They had to be patient and buy in to what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going anywhere, and they were determined to build a program. They made the improvements, and it shows.”

Miller is joining a Fayetteville Tech Community College program still getting its feet wet. The Trojans have only played one full season of collegiate sports. The softball team finished the 2018-2019 season 10-26 overall and 6-14 in the Region 10 Conference.

Miller will also be the fifth county softball player to choose the Trojans over the last two years. Sierra Mitchell and Allieyah Awad of West Carteret and Grayson Lewis of East Carteret signed to play last year, while this year Makyiah Mitchell of West will sign on with Miller.

“It’s always fun to go off to college and see girls you used to play against,” Gurley said. “It’s a county rival, and now it’s a teammate or a friend.”

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