MOREHEAD CITY —The head coach proved to be the key for Mackenzie Collins when she made her college choice.
The West Carteret senior softball player was charmed by Brittany Bennett and ultimately decided to join her at UNC-Pembroke.
“She was at a camp I attended, and she really caught my eye by the way she talked to people and handled players, if they played great or failed,” Collins said. “She was always encouraging them. She never screamed or yelled at them. She was pumping players up. I really liked her.”
Bennett spent her eighth season at the helm this spring and moved to the top of the Braves’ all-time wins list on Feb. 4, logging her 154th victory in a 3-1 win over Chowan.
Collins continues a strong trend for county student-athletes.
Since the News-Times began tracking numbers of those at the college level six years ago, softball led the way for the first time this past year with 14 former county student-athletes in that sport. There are also currently five former county student-athletes at UNCP.
“The school is nice,” Collins said. “It’s a small school, and Newport is small. I didn’t want to go to a big city, and be confused by all the traffic and all the people. That freaks me out. I like that UNCP is in the middle of nowhere.”
A standout student with a 3.74 GPA, Collins said she is intrigued by the smaller class sizes at Pembroke. She hopes to study exercise science and enter the athletic training field.
Collins also considered Western Carolina, Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina. According to West Carteret coach John Barnes, any of those programs would have been lucky to get her.
“Mackenzie is the hardest worker in the dugout,” he said. “She is very motivated and self-driven, which you don’t see a lot of. She is a great kid with a great work ethic. I’m sure she’s going to do very well.”
A mainstay of the program since her freshman year, Collins hit .343 as a junior, .307 as a sophomore and .297 in her first varsity season. She began her career as a speedster on the base paths, ranking first on the team as a sophomore in runs (28) and stolen bases (eight) after ranking third in runs (20) and second in stolen bases (five) as a freshman.
“She is super fast,” Barnes said. “She’s a really good outfielder. She did stuff in practice you just don’t see.”
Collins helped West win three of its four straight 3A Coastal Conference championships with the last two coming in undefeated fashion.
After getting on the mound a bit in her junior campaign, sporting a 2.52 ERA in 16 2/3 innings, she realized she would have to be the team’s No. 1 pitcher in her senior campaign after the Patriots lost standout hurler Brie Caldwell.
In a senior season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, she pitched 12 innings, registering a 1.17 ERA with 21 strikeouts and eight walks in relief work.
“She knew we were losing Brie, and she told me last year, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I don’t want to pitch, but I will,’” Barnes said. “She worked really hard in the offseason, and we were expecting big things from her this spring.”
Collins became acquainted with Bennett last summer at a Swansboro softball camp and then again at a UNCP camp.
“I really liked it there,” Collins said. “She was big on having music and dancing and having fun. It wasn’t always so serious. I began emailing her a lot, and she showed up to my travel ball tournaments to watch me play.”
Collins couldn’t make an official visit due to the coronavirus pandemic but was familiar enough with the school. She officially committed to the program last week. The virus also kept her from having an official signing ceremony at West, so she made do with one at her home.
Collins believes the Division II program is just right for her.
“In Division III, they don’t give athletic scholarships, and in Division I, it’s very demanding, so I think I was looking for something in between,” she said. “I split the difference and went right down the middle.”