When she runs a lap around the practice field at Eastern High School, Kelli McGroarty has this check that goes through her head at every corner.
“In my mind, I’m making sure to go around that corner flag stick,” she said. “Just because, mentally, I believe that if I cut that corner, I’m cutting my season short — and it will show on the field.”
This is what her dad, Jamie, the Eastern girls’ soccer coach, means when he calls Kelli the quintessential “coach’s kid” and leader on a team embarking on yet another season with visions of a state title.
Kelli, a midfielder entering her senior year, has thrived not only because of her elite technical skill set but also because of her will.
She doesn’t run around opponents as much as she runs through them.
Jamie McGroarty became Eastern’s coach in 2003 and has a record of 434-109-48, more wins than any girls’ soccer coach in the history of South Jersey. As dad was racking up wins, Kelli was a ball girl before her playing days.
She grew up on the Vikings sideline.
Her earliest childhood memories are of her dad preaching hard work and hustle.
“He may not even know it,” Kelli said, “but those are the things I’m always remembering. It’s all the little things he’s talked about with other players and the stories of great leadership that have happened here. That’s why I’m always reminding myself to work as hard as I can.”
Over the last three seasons, the father-daughter combination has been remarkably successful.
The Vikings captured the Olympic Conference, Coaches Tournament and Group 4 state championships last season.
It was Jamie’s third state championship at Eastern but first since 2006, and it was made sweeter by the fact that Kelli headed home the winning goal with less than five minutes left in their 1-0 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan.
“You couldn’t have written a better script,” he said.
For Kelli, it was a childhood a dream come true. And it helped cement her reputation as one of the best, most fearless athletes in South Jersey.
A La Salle recruit, Kelli’s overall play has been stellar. She had 37 goals and 10 assists last season, when she was an All-American and state player of the year.
Stories of her toughness are already lore. After she suffered a bad cut above an eye in a game against Cherokee last year, she scored four goals with a bandage around her head before she received eight stitches.
That’s classic Kelli.
Her trainers call her a “fast healer.”
“But that’s kind of an inside joke because I’m always in there for something,” she said.
Jamie says Kelli is intense in everything she does -- and always has been.
One of their biggest points of contention was that Kelli was often too much of a leader, vocal to the point that sometimes it got her into trouble. Even as an underclassmen, Kelli wasn’t known to hold back when she noticed something that needed to be fixed.
On balance, though, both father and daughter say their experience over the last three seasons has brought them closer together.
“Just to see her grow, emotionally and as a player, having success but also overcoming other issues that have come up over the years and how she’s handled it — it’s been fun to watch. And it’s all just added to the special relationship that we have,” Jamie McGroarty said. “There are times when she’s in tears, and there are times when I’m mad as hell, and I’ve said some things I probably shouldn’t have over the years. And then we hug it out later, get together and talk it out, and it brings us closer.”
Eastern lost some talent to graduation, and some players opted to play academy soccer instead of club soccer this year. But the Vikings still return seven starters, including Kelli.
They are among the favorites to win another state title.
“My goal is always to win [a state title] every single year, and I’ve already missed two years,” Kelli said, noting that winning one last year didn’t take any pressure off this year’s campaign. “So I want one more.”
Kelli has been battling nagging foot and ankle injuries this preseason. She was sporting a walking boot while insisting she’d be good to go for the season.
When asked last week, hypothetically, if she could play with the injury that very day if absolutely needed, Kelli gave the answer anyone who knows her would have expected.