By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Nicole Kelly’s incredible athletic career began at a very young age.
“I think I was four years old,” said Kelly, the recent Kearny High School graduate. “My mom put me on a softball team that she was coaching, but I was too young to play. But I was on the team.”
Kelly didn’t take long to become acclimated to softball.
“From what I remember, I hit the ball so far,” Kelly said. “The rules were that I could only run one base, so I had to stop running at first.”
Three years later, Kelly was introduced to her second sport.
“I was about seven years old when soccer took over my life,” Kelly said. “Soccer was new and exciting. I loved it. I wanted to be more active. Soccer became my sport.”
When the time came for Kelly to become involved in high school sports at Kearny, she was ready to make her mark.
Kelly became a dominant two-sport athlete, excelling in soccer in the fall and softball in the spring. As a slick kicking and passing midfielder, Kelly led the Kardinals to their fourth straight Hudson County Tournament championship, scoring 13 goals and dishing off for 19 assists for the Kardinals enroute to a surprising 21-5 record.
As a slick fielding centerfielder and lead-off hitter in the lineup, Kelly batted .300 with two doubles, a triple, 24 runs scored, 13 stolen bases and 11 runs batted in.
More importantly, Kelly was a main cog on two teams that both won Hudson County championships during her senior year, a first for the history of the school.
For her efforts, Kelly has been selected as The Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year, the first time in the history of the award dating back to 2002 that either a male or a female shared the honor.
Last week, Grace Montgomery of Nutley was named as the other recipient of the year-end award presented by The Observer.
Kelly recently received her award from Observer general manager Robert Pezzolla.
While Kelly said that she had instant success in softball, it was not the same in soccer. “I was terrible,” Kelly said. “When I was trying out for Thistle as a kid, there was a dribbling drill and I knocked all the cones over. But somehow, I still made the team. It took me some time to get to the level that everyone else was at.”
However, by the time Kelly got to Kearny High, she was ready to make a positive impact.
“I was pulled up to the varsity at the end of my freshman year in time for the states (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs),” Kelly said. “By the middle of my sophomore year, I was a starting midfielder.”
Kearny head girls’ soccer coach Vin Almeida knew that Kelly had the makings of a standout player.
“She was always quick to listen and then quick to apply what she learned,” Almeida said. “She took our advice and every year, you could see how much she improved. She was always motivated and had the ability to take the instruction we gave and applied it.”
Kelly said that Almeida’s faith in her as a sophomore went a long way.
“It definitely boosted my confidence,” Kelly said. “I was starting over some of the seniors. I definitely started to play well.”
There was some thought of moving Kelly to the front line this season, but Almeida liked the leadership she provided from the midfield slot, more importantly the wing.
“She took on a greater role this year in terms of leadership,” Almeida said. “We always knew that she had her in her. She played aggressively. She was always fun to be around.”
“We lost so many people to graduation and injury, so I thought I might have to change my position,” Kelly said. “At the start of the year, everyone was a little down, so I put the team on my back a little bit to build everyone’s confidence up. Once that started happening, we started playing better. Moods changed and I think I helped the younger kids get used to playing with the varsity. I knew that I was a younger kid once and knew what they were going through.”
Kelly also realized that she had to become more of an offensive force as a senior.
“I knew I needed to be more offensive minded,” Kelly said. “It felt good to be part of three county championships in a row.”
During the off-season, Kelly worked out on her own and to get ready once again for softball. She declined to play softball as a junior in order to get ready for her final soccer season.
“I lifted and ran on my own,” Kelly said. “I went to the batting cages a lot. It was so hard to get back into softball after taking the year off. It was a big obstacle to overcome. Coach (Jim) Pickel was patient with me as I was coming back into it. I didn’t want to be one of the weaker people on the team, so that gave me more motivation.”
Pickel saw a huge change in Kelly.
“When she was a sophomore, she was quiet and did whatever you wanted,” Pickel said. “But she came back this year, she was much more of a leader. She was kind of behind after missing a year. Her timing was a little off at the plate, but defensively, she cut balls off and made plays to keep people from scoring. That was her main objective.”
Pickel said that that Kelly became a better offensive player as the season progressed. If there’s one thing he will remember, it’s her fleet feet.
“Definitely, her speed,” Pickel said. “The first game of the season, she got thrown out trying to steal home, but the last game, she tries it again and she makes it. If she doesn’t do it again, we probably don’t win the (Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League) title. There were two different extremes.”
Pickel also will remember Kelly’s smile.
“Personality wise, when things were going well, her smile was as wide as possible,” Pickel said.
“I definitely did better than I thought,” Kelly said. “My first thought was that I had to be a leader. I always thought of myself as a leader. Winning the county championship felt awesome, because I knew no Kearny team ever won it before. The first thing I thought was that we won two county championships this year and both against the same school (Bayonne).”
Kelly will now head off to the University of Tampa, where she will major in sports management. Friend and former classmate Aislinn Sroczynski will also attend the same school. Sroczynski will compete in cross country and track and field there. Kelly is unsure about her athletic future.
“I might try to play soccer there, but at first, I want to focus on my academics,” Kelly said. “I’m so excited about going there.”
Kelly, who is the fourth Kearny female to earn The Observer Female Athlete of the Year, joining Allyson Dyl (2008), Janitza Aquino (2011) and Stefanie Gomes (2012), was proud to be put in the same classification of the other honorees.
“It’s definitely honorable,” Kelly said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I guess I feel like I made an impact at Kearny High School.”
That’s for sure.