By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
A year ago, Nicole Kelly was just your average player on the Kearny High School girls’ soccer team. She was a sophomore midfielder who was content to do her job, keeping the offense moving while also getting back to playing defense. Kelly scored four goals, helping the Kardinals win their third straight Hudson County title and a berth in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group IV sectional semifinals.
But that was a year ago. A lot can certainly change in the course of a year.
Kelly is now a junior midfielder, but she’s now a main cog in the Kardinals offense. She’s one of the main reasons why the Kardinals own an 18-3 record and recently captured a fourth straight Hudson County Tournament championship.
Kelly’s stock has skyrocketed with her stellar junior year. She’s collected 16 goals and leads the Kards with 21 assists. It is mindboggling just how much Kelly has improved over the course of one year.
“Nicole came on this season and became a special player for us,” Kearny girls’ soccer head coach Vin Almeida said. “She just had that hunger and that drive to be a better player. She wanted it more than anything and she’s done a fantastic job. It was up to her and she proved she wanted it. The simple part is that the more she wants it, the better the team plays.”
Kelly said that she worked hard in the offseason to become a better player.
“I trained a lot during the whole summer,” Kelly said. “I wanted to get my confidence back. I definitely felt like I had to prove myself. We had so many younger players on the team, so I wanted to set an example and be more of a leader.”
A few weeks ago, the Kardinals had to face major adversity, when senior center midfielder Katie O’Neill left the team for personal reasons. It forced Kelly as a two-year starter to take charge a little.
“Being one of the only juniors on the team, I had to become even more of a leader now,” Kelly said. “I had to step out of my comfort zone a lot and be a leader.”
“She’s a more mature player,” Almeida said. “She’s setting an example for others and embodies what we’re trying to do.”
Two weeks ago, before Hurricane Sandy put a stoppage on all high school athletics, Kelly had a week to remember.
Kelly collected seven goals and seven assists in a five-game span, all Kardinal victories. She had two goals and an assist in the Kards’ win over North Bergen in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals and finished it off with a goal and two assists in the Kardinals’ 6-0 win over Bayonne to secure Kearny’s fourth consecutive Hudson County tourney title.
For her efforts, Kelly has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
According to Almeida, Kelly has always been an aggressive player. She just needed the chance to show off her skills.
“She’s been willing to take players on,” Almeida said. “We want all our players to be like that. We want them to play the ball quickly and attack. That’s what Nicole did right away. She also has a powerful leg and can shoot with either leg. She also has sent some great serves into the box, setting up her teammates.”
Kelly said that her offseason workout regimen helped tremendously with her ability to shoot the ball.
“My shots are really powerful now,” Kelly said. “I say it’s because of the training I did. I did a lot of running and lifting weights. It’s really paid off. I’m definitely getting more opportunities to score, but I still like to distribute the ball.”
Kelly believes that her work as a centerfielder for the Kearny softball team in the spring helps her to be a better soccer player.
“Especially when I have to use a burst of speed to get to the ball,” Kelly said. “Running like that has definitely helped me in both sports.”
Kelly said that she draws a lot of inspiration from her older brother, John, a former Kearny High baseball player.
“He definitely has driven me and taught me all the right things,” Kelly said of her brother. “He showed me to play hard and want it more than the rest. That’s what has carried me.”
Almeida knows how much Kelly’s effervescent personality means to all of the Kardinals.
“It’s definitely a key,” Almeida said. “If she’s up and ready, we’re going to have a good day. If she’s unhappy or not positive, we’ll be down. We count on her to be up. She’s like our own firecracker. She’s a class player and we’re fortunate to have her.”
Almeida knows that even with her breakout season, Kelly’s abilities can certainly improve.
“Her potential is unlimited,” Almeida said. “From what I’ve seen from her freshman year to her sophomore year to now is incredible. Hopefully, she’ll propel us to different heights in the state tournament. It’s up to her to take us now. She can definitely push it and she’s dangerous from anywhere. I just want to put her in the best spot possible, to let her attack and not even think about it. I want her to take chances and she’s the best at that. I think this is just the beginning for her, because she has such a killer instinct. She’s an animal.”
Kelly is hopeful that she will get the chance to play on the college level.
“I definitely want to play in college,” Kelly said. “I think that what I’ve done recently has to help my chances.”
There’s no doubt about that. Kelly has now placed herself on the New Jersey girls’ soccer map.
“I never expected to score this much,” Kelly said. “I’ve definitely even surprised myself. I think we’re all ready to prove ourselves in the state tournament. We can prove to everyone we can do it.”
And as for winning a fourth county title?
“It’s really rewarding,” Kelly said. “We all stepped up our games and proved that we were the best. It feels really good to be contributing this much and helping to win games. I just want to keep going.”
So does everyone else in Kearny.