Girls Soccer Player of the Year: Eastern junior Kelli McGroarty

One of her earliest high school soccer memories, back when she was just learning about the game as a toddler, and back-to-back disappointing playoff appearances in her first two years at Eastern helped propel McGroarty and the Vikings to an unforgettable 2018 season

Kelli McGroarty, Eastern’s standout junior who is bound for LaSalle University after she graduates in 2020, is the 2018 Sun Newspapers Girls Soccer Player of the Year. She led Eastern to its first state title since 2006 by setting a new single-season goal record, including scoring in the final five postseason games. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Kelli McGroarty’s desire to see Eastern Regional High School on top of the New Jersey high school soccer mountain began when she was a toddler.

She was 5 years old in 2006, when Eastern had won its most recent Group 4 state championship entering the 2018 season. With her dad, Jamie McGroarty, patrolling the sidelines as the Vikings head coach, little Kelli got to run onto the field to celebrate with the girls 10 to 12 years her senior.

“I don’t really remember all the details of the game because I was little,” she said, “but I remember running on the field and standing in the picture.”

The picture hangs inside the school. She walked by it nearly every day in her first two years at Eastern, when her talented Vikings team reeled off strong regular seasons but couldn’t get over the hump in the playoffs.

The picture, and the memory of the moment that made the picture a possibility, fueled her and her Eastern, teammates, too.

On the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, McGroarty helped replicate the photo with a record-setting performance in the 2018 New Jersey Group 4 state championship game. With just under five minutes remaining, McGroarty headed a shot in to give Eastern the game’s lone goal and lead the Vikings to a 1–0 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan.

McGroarty’s memorable junior season, including a remarkable performance in the Group 4 playoffs, made her an easy choice as the Sun Newspapers Girls Soccer Player of the Year. Her 37th goal of the season — a new program record, one more than Amirah Ali’s previous single-season record — came on a rebound of sophomore Riley Tiernan’s shot off the crossbar in the state title game.

“You’re always supposed to follow every shot and Riley’s shot was a rocket. I followed it and the defender didn’t and I just headed it in,” McGroarty said. “One of my teammates came up to me and was like, ‘You just won the game’ and I was like, ‘No we didn’t. We have five minutes left.’ But I looked at the clock and it was 4:55 and when I looked at it again it was 1:10. Then we called for a sub and there was 9 seconds left…”

And then, bedlam.

Eastern’s close-knit team, a group that rallied together to win in memory of a former teammate, Kara Lemanowicz, who passed away days before most of them entered the school as freshmen, piled together. And then Kelli found her coach and celebrated with her dad.

“You can’t write a better script, it’s like a movie story,” said Jamie McGroarty, who now has five state championships in his high school coaching career. “You talk about it, you hope, you dream. And you do that every year. But to have your own kid involved makes it extra special, and to achieve your ultimate goal as a coach and a player and a team it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Eastern junior Kelli McGroarty gains possession during the South Jersey Group 4 championship game against Shawnee. (MIKE MONOSTRA, The Sun)

McGroarty, who has already committed to play at LaSalle University after she graduates in 2020, used the memories of her childhood and the motivation after coming up short in her first two seasons to have an unforgettable postseason.

Five days before her state championship-clinching header, McGroarty scored in double overtime to clinch the Vikings’ win over Hunterdon Central in the state semifinals. In the previous round, she scored late in regulation to help force overtime and a successful penalty kick round in a win over Shawnee. And she scored two goals in each of the two playoff games that preceded the win over Shawnee.

All told, McGroarty scored in each of the last five playoffs games, with a total of seven goals, propelling her team to a state championship and herself toward a single-season goals record. The goals record is all well and good, but it’s clear she’s a lot more proud of being able to hold onto a trophy she watched her dad get way back when she was just beginning to play the game competitively as a tyke.

“I am most proud of how she has handled the father-daughter whole situation,” Jamie McGroarty said, referencing the feeling some might have that a coach’s kid receives preferential treatment. “Her work ethic and dedication has made the whole process an easy one on me. She has made the most of her God-given ability by working as hard as she has, which silences the critics.”

Kelli McGroarty and Riley Tiernan battle for possession during a practice. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

When they’re home, they’re father and daughter, of course. But, on the field, Jamie sees Kelli as just another player and treats her as such. And as a state championship-winning coach, he’s thrilled with how his player has evolved in her first three high school seasons.

“I think the game has slowed down for her enabling her to be a lot more composed on the ball,” he said. “Her skill level and strength has also improved significantly which has added to her game.”

With her state championship dream achieved as a junior, McGroarty can kick back and enjoy her senior year next season, right?

“Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s a new season. I want to continue to help my team out the best I can, and as a forward, that’s getting goals and assists, because that’s my job. So next season, I’m going to keep doing that the best I can and hopefully we do what we did this season.”

Eastern junior Kelli McGroarty having fun with teammates during stretch before practice. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)