NORTH STONINGTON — Kellie Palmer is returning to the soccer sideline, just not in the brown and white of Stonington High.
Palmer, formerly Kellie Warner, who graduated in 2005 with the most goals in SHS girls soccer history despite a series of knee injuries, is taking over the girls program at Wheeler High. It is her first head coaching job.
“I was waiting for a coaching job to come to my attention, and I was ecstatic to apply for it,” said Palmer, who was hired Thursday after meeting with athletic director Ellen Turner and longtime boys soccer coach Joe Mendonca. “Getting it, I’m a little bit in shock. It’s been a dream of mine for a while.
“My husband [Stonington Police Officer Earl Palmer], he graduated from Wheeler, and he’s like, ‘Now you’re gonna have to switch from brown and white to Wheeler’s maroon and white.”
Palmer has her work cut out for her.
The Lions went 1-27-4 over the last two seasons under Jim Cervini, who often had trouble suiting up enough players for games. Palmer hasn’t seen her team yet — she meets the players on Tuesday — but she said she has 15 girls and that she’s ready for the challenge.
“One hundred percent I am,” she said. “I work with girls that have never touched the ball in their lives, and to see them succeed is such a great feeling for me. Knowing that they need someone to guide them, I'm up for that challenge 100 percent. I hope we can change things around and turn over a new leaf for the program."
Palmer previously coached the Stonington junior varsity in 2013 and ’14. She subsequently focused on her family — she has three daughters, ages 9, 6 and 4. The 32-year-old Pawcatuck resident and 2009 Johnson & Wales graduate took a job as a personal trainer at Elite Performance Systems in Westerly, and has coached her daughter’s under-10 soccer team the last three years.
Still, Palmer had been "looking to get her foot in the door," she said. She applied for the Stonington girls job last year, but that went to her friend Jennifer Solomon, also a former Stonington High player. So she waited patiently until she saw the Wheeler vacancy.
"This is my calling," she said of coaching. "I was going to coach at the gym, work with a few soccer players and with my daughters. I have such a passion for it. I have that drive that I used to have and I want to instill that in every player that I coach."
Before marriage and children, Kellie Warner was a standout soccer player for the Bears. She burst onto the varsity scene as a freshman, scoring 26 goals, a single-season school record at the time.
But that winter, in 2001-02, she tore the ACL in her left knee playing basketball for the Bears and needed surgery. The following soccer season, Warner tore the meniscus in the same knee. And when she had surgery to repair that injury after the season, it was discovered that her ACL hadn't healed properly from the first operation, which led to a third surgery on the left knee.
Palmer, looking back, said she was more than frustrated.
"I was almost in a state of depression," she said. "If I didn't have the support of my parents, I don't think I would've ever come back. They always supported me, and said I could do it. And when I have my goals set, I don't let anything stop me."
As a junior, she helped the Bears to the Class M state semifinals, scoring 10 goals and earning second-team ECC Medium honors. In her senior year, a healthy Warner had 18 goals and nine assists as Stonington went 13-4 and reached the state quarterfinals. Warner capped the year by being named to the ECC Medium first team and the Class M All-State team. She finished with 62 career goals (now third on the program's all-time list).
Palmer later played at Johnson & Wales, but the knee problems followed her there, too. She was named rookie of the week following the Wildcats' first game, but in the second contest, she tore the ACL in her right knee on a breakaway requiring another season-ending surgery.
When she tore the meniscus in her right knee as a sophomore, that was all she could take.
"After that, I looked at my dad, 'I can't do this anymore.' He had tears in his eyes and he was like, 'I get it.'" Palmer said. "I love the game so much I tried to get back into it, but I couldn't do it."
Soon after, she turned to fitness and developed her passion for coaching.
Now she has a high school program all her own at Wheeler.
"We're gonna work on bringing the game back to that school," she said. "They always had such good soccer players. They were a small school, but you could never take them lightly. ... With a strong coaching dynamic and if the girls want to play for you, the talent doesn't matter. Hard work will overcome any of that."