It may sound a bit paranoid when Jon Kelly, 17, confides that he was privately grateful just to survive this soccer season with both legs, his appendix and his general health intact.
Call it superstitious. In fact, Kelly's fears arose from legitimate family history, and he wasn't alone in half-wondering if something weird might spoil his senior season.
Augusto Alarcon of Dana Hills High School is one of Orange County's most respected soccer coaches, and a reasonable man. But even Alarcon found himself worrying--for Jon's sake and for the sake of his South Coast League-championship team--about the next manifestation of "the jinx of the Kellys."
It already had robbed him of the services of two of his best seniors in past years. Deep down, he was not eager to find out whether it would hold true for Jon Kelly, too.
Jon is the youngest of three soccer-playing brothers, each with star potential as a high school player, each integral to the Dolphin Dynasty that has evolved over the last four soccer seasons at Dana Hills.
But because of an odd pattern of misfortunes, nobody got the chance to discover how the older brothers, Greg and Robby Kelly, might have developed on the soccer field as seniors. Greg, once the heart of the Dolphin team and its most valuable player as a junior, went down with torn tendons in his knee in a nonleague game in 1981, his senior year.
Last winter, Robby, whom the family believed to have the greatest natural talent, was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix--the day before league play opened. The circumstances were so unlikely that Alarcon said he believed it was all a dumb joke until Kelly's father came to the practice field to assure him the news was, unfortunately, true.
"It was like a curse," Alarcon recalled. "The second brother (Robby) was an incredible player. He was averaging two goals a game. When they told me, I thought it was a lie just to scare me. It was one of our biggest blows. This year, I said, 'That will not happen to Jon. This year is going to be different.' "
So, the job of thwarting the jinx fell to Jon, the varsity's starting sweeper the past three years. His affiliation with the team began when he arrived at soccer practice as a sophomore defector from the basketball program, and dazzled Alarcon.
Since then, Dana Hills has lost only three regular-season games and has an overall record of 57-6-10. This season, the Dolphins were ranked second in Orange County. They progressed to the CIF quarterfinals, where they lost to Lakewood, 2-0, on two goals that were headed into the net on throw-ins.
"Jon's taken care of a lot of things we missed out on," said Greg Kelly, now a student at UC Santa Barbara. "We started a little tradition there, but he's finishing it off with a big conclusion."
Jon Kelly became the symbol of a tradition for miserly defenses built by Alarcon at Dana Hills. Roaming behind the line of fullbacks, he represented the final buffer between offensive marauders and the Dolphins' sophomore goalie.
How well did Kelly caulk the territory in front of the goal? The Dolphins shut out opponents 11 times this season, allowed a total of only 17 goals in 24 games and never allowed more than two goals in any game.
Meanwhile, Kelly recorded 60 steals and 130 interceptions, Alarcon said. He also debunked the jinx by failing to succumb to so much as a minor case of senioritis.
On the other hand, a fellow such as Kelly really wouldn't recognize senioritis if he met it eyeball-to-eyeball. Self-described as shy and quiet except on the soccer field, Kelly stays quite busy maintaining his 3.25 grade-point average and becoming one of the county's best athletes in three varsity sports.
When Jon Kelly graduates this spring, he will own nearly half an alphabet--a total of 11 varsity letters.
In cross-country, he was the undefeated individual champion in one of the most competitive cross-country leagues in the Southern Section, and placed seventh among of the top 84 runners in the Southern Section 4-A championships last fall. He is currently one of the fastest milers (4:18.9) and 3,200-meter (9:43) runners in the county.
"We've only lost three league dual meets in the last five years, and Jon Kelly has had a lot to do with that," said Dolphin cross-country Coach Tim Butler, a 12-year veteran who recruited Kelly out of a P.E. class and watched him ascend to the No. 2 slot on the varsity as a freshman. "He's a pure athlete, the best athlete I've ever coached."
On a typical day, Kelly's training includes six miles of running and 15 sprints straight up the flanks of the football stadium. That conditioning provided him with some advantage on the soccer field.
"He's the one person in the game who always plays 110% from the first second to the last second," said Dolphin teammate David Devine, a senior fullback. "I think being a good runner helps him because he never gets weaker as the game goes along."
Kelly's soccer skill stems from virtual year-round play on club teams since the age of 8. His knowledge of the game and anticipatory instincts allow him not only to break up opposing attacks, but to recast them as opportunities for the Dolphin offense.
That's one level of mastery above many good high school fullbacks, who pride themselves on simply giving the attacker's ball a spectacular boot out of bounds.
Kelly performs his magician-like sleights of foot so smoothly and routinely that it often goes unnoticed by all but the true connoisseurs of soccer.
"He doesn't have any fancy moves--no pizazz--but you can't get around him," Devine said. "A lot of people in our league already know about him, but he surprised some other teams' star forwards. He does stuff you wouldn't expect him to do, like taking the ball away from people and turning it up the field."
Alarcon: "A lot of the time, we were going in the opposite direction before the other team even knew what happened. At times, he makes it look so easy. But it's not."
Devine said, "He made up for everyone else's mistakes. There's no doubt in my mind that if he were the player to get hurt, our unblemished record would have been something a lot different."
Name School Pos. Class Augustine Carbajal La Quinta Forward Sr. Curiel Garcia Anaheim Forward Sr. David Santiago Brea Forward Sr. Darren Bedolla Cypress Halfback Sr. Jorge Cruz Estancia Halfback Sr. Kyle Thomas Canyon Halfback Sr. Bill Cde Baca Mater Dei Fullback Sr. Marshall Hudson Capistrano Valley Fullback Sr. Jon Kelly Dana Hills Fullback Sr. Mike Medlin Esperanza Fullback Sr. Patrick Lawler Servite Goal Sr.
Forward: Rudy Canales (La Quinta) Sr., Steve Mullen (Fountain Valley) Jr., Keith Penrod (Buena Park) Sr. Halfback: Wilfredo Campos (Estancia) Sr., Kevin Kaufman (Foothill) Sr., Darren Tass (Fountain Valley) Sr. Fullback: Carrick Brewster (Foothill) Sr., Tom Christie (Mission Viejo) Sr., Jeff Clewett (Troy) Sr, Todd Gushea (Cypress) Sr. Goal: Dan Walner (Canyon) Sr.