CHICORA, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Mackenzie Craig has never known where fate would take her.
It whisked her from Karns City High School to the basketball and volleyball courts at Butler County Community College.
(Above photo courtesy of Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
It carried her from BC3 to Indiana (Pa.) University, where she learned much more about herself than basketball during her time there.
And it eventually pulled her from a possible career in the state police into one as a corrections officer at the Butler County Prison.
Each step of the way, fate has helped mold the person Craig has become. Each step of the way, it has has led the 22-year-old Chicora native to something good.
“I’ve always believed that everything that happens has a reason,” Craig said. “So far, that’s been very true.”
Her first brush with fate came midway through her senior year at Karns City High School when Craig attended a Butler County Community College men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader.
Little did she know the trajectory of her life would change in a flash that night.
Craig, who was in the middle of her final basketball season with the Gremlins, was certain that her basketball days would soon be over. Volleyball was going to be her sport at the next level and she had already agreed to play for Rob Snyder at BC3 in the coming fall.
Then Pioneer men’s and women’s basketball Dick Hartung approached her after the game. He knew she was coming to the community college to play volleyball and he had a proposition for her.
Play basketball, too.
“I was like, ‘OK. Sure. Might as well,’” Craig said, chuckling. “That was the extent of the conversation. I was just like, ‘Why not?’”
Craig turned that one decision into a historical career at BC3. The 5-foot-10 forward was virtually unstoppable for the Pioneers, averaging 24.4 points and 19.6 rebounds during her sophomore season. She finished her two-year career at BC3 with a school-record 1,227 points and 966 rebounds.
Craig was also a star on the volleyball court during that time and became the first player in BC3 history to be named National Junior College Athletic Association All-American in two sports.
“It was kind of funny because I never thought I could play college basketball, no matter what division it was,” Craig said. “But thank God (Coach Hartung) talked to me.”
Craig had her moments at Karns City — she did average 14 points and eight rebounds per game during her senior season with the Gremlins and helped the program with four consecutive District 9 championships during her time there, after all. But she was simply a cog in a potent machine.
With star players around her like LeeAnn Gibson, Annie Hegedus, Emily LoPresti and Shanel Preston, Craig was a role player for Karns City.
And a very good one at that.
There were no signs, however, that she would become the force she was at BC3.
“In high school, I was always like, ‘What can I bring to the table to help us win?’” Craig said. “I just did my thing, and I didn’t worry about it. Sure, there were times when I thought, ‘I wish I could do more,’ but we all had a job.
“To be honest, I didn’t have the confidence to be a leader or anything more,” Craig added.
Until she stepped onto the Pioneers’ court and began to play for Hartung.
Soon, word was out on the dominant Craig. She, however, was one of the last to realize the historic numbers she was putting up.
“I didn’t think too much about it,” Craig said. “I was just playing my game and never did I want to focus on points or numbers. When you do that to yourself, you limit yourself. Then an article came out about me, and I saw the numbers, and I was like, ‘Well, I guess that’s kind of crazy.’ I never realized I had that kind of ability.”
Craig had never thought much about playing past her two years at BC3, either. That, too, changed.
Thank fate again.
And Hartung, too.
Craig had already decided to go to IUP to finish her criminal justice degree. Hartung had a history with IUP women’s basketball coach Tom McConnell, coaching him at BC3.
Hartung let McConnell know Craig was coming and suggested he take a long look at her.
McConnell agreed, and Craig earned a walk-on spot on the roster for the 2019-20 season.
“Getting that opportunity to play at IUP was the cherry on top,” Craig said.
She knew her playing time there would be limited — IUP has been a perennial NCAA Division II power under McConnell. Craig, though, didn’t join the Crimson Hawks to be the star she was at BC3. That wasn’t the goal for Craig, who did play in 14 games and scored nine points and pulled down nine rebounds.
“I went because I thought, ‘What can I learn from the sport now?’” Craig said. “What can I gain from it? And, oh my gosh, I got so much. I got to see a whole new perspective of the sport, and what I learned from Coach McConnell was such a blessing. Such a blessing.”
Craig, though, lost her senior year in 2020-21 when IUP canceled the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really was heartbreaking,” Craig said. “My first year at IUP was so much fun, going to those games and getting on that big court. It was funny because I played on that court during my junior year in high school, and I was so terrified. But then, my first year at IUP, it felt like home. It was just so cool to be a part of that and so hard because I didn’t get another year.”
Craig, though, has since come to grips with losing that final season.
“I’m OK with it all coming to an end,” Craig said. “I had already given my all to the sport.”
Craig had an opportunity to return when the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all players because of the pandemic, but she passed on it.
She had other things to do — namely her life’s work.
But fate altered her plans again.
Craig had always wanted to join the state police, but that career path changed when she got a job as a corrections officer at the Butler County Prison.
Craig may yet end up as a state police officer. For now, though, she’s happy where she is as at the prison.
And who knows what fate has planned for her in the future.
“I never really thought to apply there fresh out of college,” Craig said. “I always had in my mind, ‘State police. State police.’ It’s funny, both my mom and dad said, ‘Why don’t you look at the prison? They’re hiring.’
“They were both agreeing on something and that doesn’t happen often,” Craig added, chuckling, “so I figured I should check it out. And thank God I did because I have just fallen in love with it. I just feel like this is very much where I’m meant to be.”