By Michael Kelly
With her name called over a loudspeaker, MacKenzie O’Brien, right fielder, proudly marched from her dugout to home plate at Niskayuna’s softball field, family members by her side.
One of six seniors on the Silver Warriors, Kenzie, as she is called, was the first honored during the Senior Day ceremony. Halfway to her destination, the excitement proved too much. She started to clap with each step.
“Kenzie,” her father Mike O’Brien said, laughing. “You’re not supposed to clap.”
She did not stop.
“But I’m so excited,” said Kenzie, beaming, clapping.
Monday’s game against Shaker was Kenzie’s last home game. It was also the first game she ever played in for the Silver Warriors. She got on the field to play one half-inning in Niskayuna’s loss to Shaker, more than enough for the 19-year-old player/student manager who said it was a dream come true to take the field with her teammates.
“All she wants to do is be included,” said Lisa O’Brien, Kenzie’s mother. “Being part of a group is everything for her.”
There are other teams in softball as well as other sports across Section II and the country that find a place on their squad for players like Kenzie O’Brien. She found her place. She belongs.
Kenzie has no formal diagnosis, but her learning and social skills lag behind her peers. She participates in a special program at school, and spends every other day at Schenectady County Community College. One day a week, she heads to a local business and works as a volunteer.
She started with Niskayuna’s varsity squad as a sophomore. Her twin sister, Jackie O’Brien, was a junior on the team that year — Kenzie stayed back in school a year when she was little — and Kenzie agreed to play after years of head coach Jules Paul asking her to join.
“I told her she wouldn’t have to participate in anything she didn’t want to,” Paul said. “I told her she’d be the only one that gets to call the shots like that.”
Paul laughed at the memory.
“It’s ironic I told her that,” he explained. “First day she got to practice, she did everything.”
Kenzie’s twin graduated in 2014. Lisa O’Brien figured that meant Kenzie’s time with Niskayuna softball was over. It wasn’t the case; Kenzie wanted to keep playing.
Kenzie got her big chance Monday — and it was almost too much for her to handle. After her team’s ceremony, she lifted her green warmup shirt above her head to reveal her white jersey with the
No. 4 in red. Her eyes welled with tears.
“I’m a little nervous,” she announced, her back against the team’s dugout.
Seconds later, smiling Kenzie was back. Standing with her huddled teammates as they shouted, “1-2-3 — Warriors,” she could not join in. She was laughing too hard.
No batted balls headed to right field in Kenzie’s inning patrolling it, but senior center fielder Makaylah Woodward said the team had no worries about Kenzie in the field. After tossing a ball back and forth with Kenzie before the inning started, Woodward ran up to her teammate to give her a first bump.
“The one thing I told her was to be confident,” said Woodward. “She practices and throws with us. She knows she’s a good player.”
After that first inning, Kenzie retreated to her customary corner seat on the bench. Tucked away a bit, she often watches games from there until comfortable enough to roam about the dugout.
“Usually, we have to draw her out of her shell a bit,” said senior second baseman Lauren Litz. “Once she gets out of it, though, she’s ready. She’s cheering on the team and being very positive.”
“She’s always there, smiling, laughing,” senior pitcher Stacy Gordon said.
Sometimes, Kenzie leaves the dugout when her team hits the field to hang out with her mother. When Kenzie did that Monday, she was greeted each time by a new friend or family member who had shown up to see her.
Midway through the game, a friend arrived with a sign for Kenzie’s Senior Day: “O’Brien is always smilin,’” it read.
That’s the truth, and Kenzie lit up when she saw it. After taking some photos, though, Kenzie kept stealing glances back at the softball diamond and her team.
Turning to her mother, Kenzie smiled.
“Can I go back now?” she said.