Kelli McGroarty was 4 years old in 2006. There's a picture of her from that year on display at her school: She's bundled up in a winter coat. She's standing at midfield, next to her father, Jamie. She's posing with the Eastern girls' soccer team after the Vikings won the Group 4 state championship.
McGroarty walks past it every day. For three years, it's helped reinforce her dream, and she would talk about it often: She wanted to add another picture to that wall. And this time, she wanted to be in uniform.
Sunday morning at Kean University, McGroarty took that dream into her own hands and headed home the winner in Eastern's 1-0 win over Bridgewater-Raritan in the Group 4 state title game.
It marks Eastern's first state championship since 2006, even though the team perennially churns out some of the most talented players and most well-rounded squads in the state.
"This is all I've wanted for this program since I was little," said Kelli McGroarty, a junior forward. "I didn't want to leave it to my senior year. It's just such a great feeling. I don't even know how to put it into words."
Her father struggled just as much. And when asked about the win, and about accomplishing the feat with his daughter, the veteran coach had to take a moment to compose himself.
"You couldn't write a better script," he said. "We battled, we played hard today. And we found a way to get a 'W' like we have all through the tournament. There's just not enough words. …"
This is the third state title in McGroarty's 16 years at Eastern. It ends a frustrating drought in which despite being one of the state's top teams, Eastern couldn't even get get out of South Jersey.
"We've been knocking on the door for 10 years," Jamie McGroarty said. "South Jersey is brutal. … But we're proud to represent South Jersey and this is a big moment for our program."
McGroarty's score was a rebound off a laser from Riley Tiernan with 4 minutes, 55 seconds left in regulation.
"I saw Riley winding up," Kelli McGroarty said. "I was hoping she wasn't going to cut in and that she was going to shoot it, and she shot it, and it bounced right in front of me and I headed it in."
Bridgewater-Raritan keeper Maggie Ousouljoglou was forced to make several acrobatic saves.
It was fitting that Tiernan and McGroarty were at center stage for the winning goal. Both flashed skill and athleticism that Bridgewater-Raritan (20-2-1) had trouble matching for most of the game.
Even in the first half, the Vikings (25-2-1) were peppering the Panthers with shots, including a wide-open look by Emily Eustace that clanked off the bottom of the crossbar, straight down, just inches from counting as the game's first score.
"I think the first 10 minutes we were scared, we were younger than them," Jamie McGroarty said. "I knew if we got through that first 10 minutes we'd be OK. We got some good chances, didn't finish, and then we finally got a break and buried one."
Eastern 0 1 — 1
Bridgewater-Raritan 0 0 — 0
Goal: Kelli McGroarty
Saves: E- Olivia Alves 3 ; BR- Maggie Ousouljoglou 11.