Nov. 9—It was just about a year ago that University of Maine women's soccer coach Scott Atherley was in his office, refreshing the NCAA transfer portal every few minutes, when he saw the name.
Kristina Kelly, the 2019 United Soccer Coaches National Player of the Year, was leaving Central Connecticut State. Atherley said he reached out to Kelly immediately.
"She was probably in the transfer portal 10 minutes," Atherley said.
The interest was mutual. A Lincolnville native and graduate of Camden Hills Regional High, Kelly visited a quiet UMaine campus with her parents during Thanksgiving week in 2022. She committed to the Black Bears soon after, and enrolled for the spring semester.
In every way, UMaine has been a perfect fit for Kelly, a junior. Her addition has helped Maine jump from a good team in America East, where the Black Bears went 9-3-5 a year ago and reached the conference semifinals, to league champs. The Black Bears won their first America East championship on Sunday with a 3-2 double-overtime victory over UMass Lowell.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, Maine (11-1-6) will play at Harvard (12-3-2) in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"I couldn't really ask for anything more. I love our team, school, and our accomplishments," Kelly said.
Kelly said the decision to leave Central Connecticut State came down to academics and a desire to be closer to home. She wasn't necessarily looking to come to UMaine, but after visiting campus and meeting the team, Kelly knew it was the perfect fit. A microbiology major, Kelly found a mentor in Dr. Melissa Maginnis, a microbiology professor and ardent supporter of the women's soccer team. Kelly said she's considering medical school after she graduates.
A 2020 graduate of Camden Hills, Kelly dominated high school competition for four years. She recorded 159 goals and 58 assists, leading the Windjammers to a 70-1-1 record and four straight Class A state championships. Also an outstanding wrestler, Kelly won the 113-pound girls' state title as a junior, and was selected as the 2019-20 Varsity Maine Female Athlete of the Year.
Kelly chose Central Connecticut because, like many students, she was looking to get away from home. After the 2022 season, despite starting 39 of 40 career games with nine goals and six assists, she realized the New Britain, Connecticut, school was no longer the right fit.
"When it comes down to it, she's a Mainer," Atherley said.
What Maine offers is a big part of Kelly's life. She loves the outdoors, loves to hunt and fish. Her off-campus apartment features a back yard where she can bring her bow for target practice, or just hang out with Cooper, the redbone coonhound she adopted. Kelly has a pair of tattoos on her left arm. The mountains on her biceps remind her of her family's camp near Jackman, the small town near the Quebec border. The lion on her forearm reminds Kelly of advice from her father, Jack, to always stand up for herself and not back down. The flowers under the lion are a reminder of advice from her mother, Erika, to be kind.
There have been games this season at which a few dozen family and friends have made the trip from the Midcoast to Orono to watch Kelly play. She said she hears every cheer and draws strength from the support. It helps keep her focused on the task at hand and push away self doubt that wants to force its way in.
"In the past, I've struggled with confidence on and off the field," Kelly said. "I always just expect so much from myself and push myself. When I don't always see the results, I get frustrated."
A striker in high school, Kelly has spent most of this season playing the midfield, although Atherley likes Kelly's versatility and has used her on the forward line at times. Kelly's work ethic helps her get to the ball and transition the Black Bears to the attack, as well as get back on defense, he said.
"She's a threat. She can shoot from distance. She can penetrate. She's looking to go to the goal," Atherley said. "I didn't appreciate how versatile she is. Watching her play in high school, we were just watching her blow by everybody. It's hard to contain her."
Selected to the America East All-Conference second team, Kelly has two goals and four assists, putting her fourth on the team in scoring. She's tied for third on the team with 25 shots. Kelly said the biggest change in her game since joining Maine is greater confidence. She feels a strong connection with her new teammates. She trusts they'll be in the right position for a pass, or they'll get her the ball when she's open. Kelly said she's not in her own head on the pitch anymore. She's just playing and reacting, and she loves it.
"I don't have to play reserved anymore," Kelly said. "We know what to expect from each other."
Central Connecticut, Kelly's old team, made the NCAA tournament, too. The Blue Devils play Friday night at Penn State. Kelly said she's exchanged texts with some former teammates, offering each other congratulations and good luck. Harvard is an opponent the Black Bears haven't faced since early in the 2018 season.
"I played (Harvard) at Central Connecticut," Kelly said. "I think we can do well."
Content with the peace of mind that comes with being home, Kelly is doing well herself.