Senior Kelli McGroarty can remember playing the various sports she competes in at Eastern Regional High School for basically her entire childhood. The three-sport athlete says that soccer, however, is without a doubt her favorite.
“I’ve been kicking around the ball pretty much since I could walk,” said McGroarty. “There was probably even one in my crib.”
After yet another successful season at Eastern, which culminated in the school’s first Group 4 State Championship since 2006 with McGroarty setting a new single-season goal record and eventually being named the 2018 Sun Newspapers Girls Soccer Player of the Year, McGroarty’s accomplishments continue to rack up after the final whistle.
In early June, McGroarty was named the 2018-2019 Gatorade New Jersey Girls Soccer Player of the Year, the first to be chosen from Eastern in the company’s 34 years of honoring some of the best athletes across the country.
In the past, she’s also been named as the South Jersey Player of the Year for various other media outlets and organizations.
However, this most recent honor comes with a meaningful added bonus, receiving a $1,000 grant to award to a nonprofit of her choosing.
“I was studying for finals in my math class when I found out I had won,” said McGroarty. “I got an email that said I had won, so I texted my parents and we were all freaking out.”
“So, needless to say, I didn’t study much that class after that,” added McGroarty, with a laugh.
Having been named a state Player of the Year for a sport through Gatorade, McGroarty was then eligible to submit an essay to win one of 12 $10,000 spotlight grants for an organization of her choice – something she quickly did and won as well, donating all the money to ‘Smiles From Kara,’ a Voorhees non-profit established in honor of Kara Lemanowicz.
McGroarty, in her essay, wrote about her friendship and relationship with her best friend, Lemanowicz, who tragically passed just days prior to starting her freshman year at Eastern in 2015.
“I wrote about how close I was with her and how much it would mean to do something in her name because we still play for her,” said McGroarty. “Just to be able to help people in her name … like we do the 5K and I’m sure that helps, but $10,000 is a pretty large sum, so to be able to use that and help even more people is a pretty cool feeling.”
For McGroarty, the memory of her friend still resonates closely for her – she wears multiple bands remembering Lemanowicz around her wrists and/or ankles and touches them for good luck prior to soccer games, while also having a personal tattoo that she feels keeps them together.
“We keep her name alive around here,” said McGroarty. “I think every sport is going to continue to remember her for a while so people can see her name.”
With McGroarty’s number being 10 and Lemanowicz’s favorite number being 11, McGroarty knew it was meant to be when she sent in the essay.
“When we found out we could win that extra $10,000, since number 10 is mine and number 11 is hers, I just knew that she was going to work her magic,” said McGroarty.
Kelly Lemanowicz, founder of “Smiles From Kara” and Kara’s mother, says she couldn’t be more thankful that her daughter’s lifelong friend is continuing to honor her life through her hard work.
“I believe they were 3 years old when they first met,” said Lemanowicz. “They just grew up on the soccer field together … they were like sisters. We’re so blessed that [the McGroartys] are such a big part of keeping Kara’s spirit alive through everything.”
Lemanowicz says that, over the years, through the multiple accomplishments of the Eastern girls soccer team since what would have been Kara’s freshman year until now, the team has included her family and the organization in everything possible.
“They’ve included Kara in everything as if she was still on the team,” said Lemanowicz. “When they won the state championship she got a championship jacket and a championship ring.”
According to Lemanowicz, “Smiles From Kara” provides financial assistance to local students who might not be able to pay sports fees, while also offering scholarships and hosting various donations drives, all in honor of Kara.
“Because that’s what my daughter loved to do,” said Lemanowicz. “Sports were her life and she loved little kids, so we kind of combined the two – and she was always smiling.”