When former Eastern High soccer forward/midfielder Kelli McGroarty got an athletic scholarship from La Salle University during her career with the Vikings, the decision to head to Philly was almost immediate.
Getting the opportunity to play for a Division I program in the Atlantic 10 Conference – after scoring 108 goals and recording 59 assists in four seasons at Eastern – was a testament to her hard work and dedication to the game.
Three years and several all-conference selections later, she wanted a change of scenery, and soon enough, the University of Iowa came calling. A program on the up and up in the Big 10, with NCAA tournament appearances, a Big 10 tournament title and appearances in the last five seasons, it was exactly the place where McGroarty wanted to continue her career.
“It’s been a lot different in pretty much every category of my life,” she said of the Big 10. “… The culture is a lot different, people wise, but soccer wise, it’s a lot more intense, a lot more accountability, a lot faster. …
“Anyone can win any given day in this conference, so I like having that fighting chance, and so does our team every game.”
It was a great decision for McGroarty, the 2022 All-Atlantic 10 first team selection, who scored two goals and recorded two assists in 13 games with Iowa, a team that’s 8-2-3 overall and 2-2-2 in the Big 10.
That has resonated back home with her Eastern family, literally, as her dad Jamie, a previous National Coach of the Year winner, continues his tenure as head coach of the school’s program.
“It’s a different kind of stress watching her play,” he explained. “When she played for me, I not only had to worry about her, but the team as well. Now, at that level, it’s just about what can she do to be successful? What can she do to be happy and have a great college experience?
“I always tell her I had one, and you deserve the same.”
While the Hawkeyes are staying competitive in the Big 10, Eastern has done the same, with a recent 13-1-1 overall record. New stars like juniors Johnna Gonter and Aubrey Benfield have emerged to carve out their own places in Vikings’ history and find their way to playing at the next level, just like McGroarty and those who come before her.
“We’ve had a run of probably the last dozen or so years, and it takes a lot of players to do that,” Jamie noted. “One of the things we’ve had is one or two elite players most of those years, and they’re the ones who go on to play at the next level.
“It’s awesome to see them doing it and playing well … It’s always exciting.”
While no longer 30 to 40 minutes between home and La Salle, McGroarty has continued to represent the Eastern name in Iowa City, and she’s proud of her New Jersey heritage as the lone player from the Garden State on Iowa’s roster.
She’s not the only Eastern player in the Big 10, however: A pair of former Vikings, Sara Brocious and Riley Tiernan, are starters for Rutgers. The trio played against each other on Oct. 1, a 1-0 win for the Hawkeyes. And in playing at the next level, there’s a special meaning in representing both Eastern and South Jersey.
“I definitely like representing Eastern in the Big 10,” McGroarty related. “Being able to step up a level and match where some of my teammates went, being able to join them, is definitely something I’m proud of.”
Only a few regular season matches remain for her and the Hawkeyes, who are looking to cement a place in the Big 10 tournament again as their aspire to the NCAA tournament. Only a few remain for Eastern as well, before their quest for yet another NJSIAA Group IV South Jersey and state title.
That means there’s plenty of soccer yet to be played and plenty of chapters yet to be written, but one thing is for certain: Eastern and South Jersey will remain a soccer pipeline for years to come.
“I’m going to have to compliment the coach a little bit there,” McGroarty joked about her dad. “South Jersey kids are always gritty. It always seems to produce just hard-working, gritty kids that know how to score.”