After a recent game, Eastern's Kelli McGroarty was being treated for a cut above her eye. McGroarty had played the second half with a bandage wrapped around her head — the cut never stopped bleeding — but she managed to score four goals in a 5-1 win over Cherokee.

Sara Brocious, a junior defender for Eastern, was just in front of the trainer's table, talking about her own approach to the game of soccer.

The Olympic Conference has long been regarded as physical and unforgiving. But Brocious will tell you there is room for different styles and approaches to the game.

"Me, I feel like my biggest strength is that I can read the game really well," Brocious said as McGroarty learned she'd need stitches — she eventually received eight of them — for her cut. "Of course I can play physical if I need to. But I'm more focused on reading angles, picking off passes and communicating with my teammates. I think great communication is the biggest reason we've had so much success on defense."

Brocious (right) and Camden Catholic’s Haley Meldrum close in on the ball.
AKIRA SUWA
Brocious (right) and Camden Catholic’s Haley Meldrum close in on the ball.

The contrast between  Brocious and McGroarty that afternoon underscored just how well-rounded Eastern is this season. The Vikings aren't the biggest or strongest team, but they're athletic. Coach Jamie McGroarty said this might be his most athletic team since arriving at Eastern in 2003.

"And they're a bunch of soccer heads," Jamie McGroarty said. "They love the game. They love talking about it. They love playing it, and that's one of the things I love most about this team."

Part of Brocious' savvy on the field is owed to her love of the game. And on the most well-rounded team in South Jersey, McGroarty said that Brocious might be his most well-rounded player.

She plays center back because that's where she is needed most. But she's a natural center midfielder, and that's where she sees herself playing at St. Joseph's, where she is committed to play after high school.

And although she's leading a defense that has allowed just five goals in nine games, she has scored four goals of her own.

"Sara is just such a skilled player. She's very intelligent, and she has a very good soccer IQ," Jamie McGroarty said. "She brings another dynamic. With some girls, you tell them just to kick the ball as far as they can when they're on defense. Her, you don't have to tell her that. With Sara, we can build out of the back.

"She could play anywhere for us, and she'd make us better wherever we played her."

Even by the team's lofty standards, Eastern is off to an incredibly hot start this season. The Vikings are 9-0 and outscoring opponents, 34-5.

Even more, Eastern is riding a 32-game unbeaten streak dating back to 2016, when Brocious was a freshman.

Brocious (right) stops the ball while Camden Catholics Linsey Badnarek tries to kick it.
AKIRA SUWA
Brocious (right) stops the ball while Camden Catholics Linsey Badnarek tries to kick it.

"It feels great to be a part of this team," Brocious said. "Our record has spoken for itself. And off the field, too, we're all great friends. My teammates and coaches are just great people. It makes it even more special to be a part of."

Brocious said the record isn't something the team is focused on often. That's largely because, while the Vikings haven't technically been beaten, they've still experienced heartbreak.

Last year, Eastern tied Clearview, 1-1, in the second round of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs. Clearview advanced on penalty kicks, marking a huge upset that Brocious said made her team hungrier entering this year.

The Vikings have won the last six Olympic Conference titles. They're the defending Coaches Tournament champions. But they haven't won a South Jersey or state title since 2006.

But with a combination of athleticism, toughness, high soccer IQ and a sheer love for the game, the pieces appear to be in place, all over the field, for Eastern.

"It's something all of us are working very hard for," Brocious said. "We just have to keep our heads up, stay positive and keep working."