"Always play through pain," Kelli McGroarty said. "Mental toughness is a part of the game."

For McGroarty, a junior midfielder at Eastern, those are words to live by.

On Sept. 21, the Vikings girls' soccer team beat Olympic American rival Cherokee, 5-1, and McGroarty scored four of the five goals. Most notable, however, was that two of the goals came after McGroarty suffered a long cut above her left eye that happened about halfway through the game.

McGroarty's collided with a Cherokee defender on a corner kick, and she noticed blood dripping from her head.

"I felt funny. I started laughing," McGroarty said recently. "I said to my teammate that this better look cool tomorrow."

“A bunch of players on this team would play through the pain. It’s the team standard.” — Kelli McGroarty

According to Jamie McGroarty, the Eastern coach and Kelli's father, that was a typical response from his daughter.

"She never asked, 'Dad, does it look bad,' but asked, 'Can I go back in now?' " Jamie McGroarty said.

And she did. After taking time to see the trainer and getting the green light to go back in, McGroarty returned to the field minutes later. She played the second half with a bandage wrapped around her head since the cut never stopped bleeding. While some players might have considered the mishap a reason to stop playing or ease up, McGroarty said, "This injury wasn't an obstacle for me. It was bleeding, but it didn't hurt. It felt like a cut."

McGroarty (10) battles for the ball against Camden Catholic.
AKIRA SUWA
McGroarty (10) battles for the ball against Camden Catholic.

For Jamie McGroarty, putting Kelli back in was a "no-brainer."

"Kids know she's a competitor," he said. "Kelli sacrifices for the team and sets a tone for everyone to follow. I don't see her differently than anyone else. [Kelli] was not at risk health-wise and we got an OK from the trainer, so I put her right back in."

After the game ended, McGroarty went to a hospital in Vorhees and got eight stitches to close the wound for good. And although she missed the post-game celebration, she was more concerned about missing the analysis of the game.

"I was worried about missing the team huddle at the end of the game," she said. "It's when we talk about things we can improve on and how we can get better."

McGroarty did indeed keep improving as the season wore on. On Friday, McGroarty, Emily Eustace  and Riley Tiernan scored as Eastern defeated Cinnaminson, 3-0, in the first round of the South Jersey Coaches Association tournament.

Earlier in the week, Eastern beat Moorestown, 2-0, for its seventh win in a row and snapped Moorestown's 11-game win streak. McGroarty had a goal and an assist.

McGroarty also scored two goals in a recent 4-1 win over Cherokee and one goal in a 2-0 win over Mainland. The Vikings won their first nine games, outscoring opponents, 34-5, and extended their 32-game unbeaten streak that dated back to 2016.

McGroarty and her father, Jamie, in 2016.
CURT HUDSON
McGroarty and her father, Jamie, in 2016.

It's that success that drives McGroarty. The team's culture of winning and self sacrifice has set a standard that she and her teammates are determined to carry on. The Vikings have won the last six Olympic Conference titles, and they're the defending Coaches Tournament champions.

"A win is a win," said McGoarty, who has been a starter since her freshman year. She also served as the team's ball girl before she was old enough to play for it. "I needed to get back in the game [on Sept. 21] to help us get there. A bunch of players on this team would play through the pain. It's the team standard."