A group of about 10 girls were munching on hot dogs inside a summer camp cafeteria when Virginia Kerley joined their table for a bite.
Like June bugs attracted to a bright light on a summer night, the girls swarmed to Kerley, making her their center of attention. A spirited group, these girls at Camp Dreamcatcher gave no outward indications that they all were facing cancer or a blood-related disorder
“Virginia is a star, a big star,” 7-year-old Mallory told a visitor to the camp in this town of roughly 300 people some 80 miles east of Austin.
Mallory and her friends had no idea that Kerley is one of the most decorated track and field athletes in Texas high school history. They were unaware, too, that she was honored as an all-state basketball player in 2016 and totaled more than 1,700 career points over four varsity seasons at Taylor High School.
They also didn’t know that their popular camp counselor recently was chosen as the Central Texas high school athlete of the 2016-17 school year by the American-Statesman.
Instead the children at Camp Dreamcatcher considered Kerley a star because the recent high school graduate tirelessly gave them her time and attention. Last month, she spent six days and nights at the camp, overseeing wheelchair basketball games, fishing, arts and crafts, archery, horseback riding, meals, swimming parties, a talent show and campfires.
“One of the things that I always appreciated about Virginia is her love for younger kids,” said Kim Clifton, Kerley’s track and field coach at Taylor and the person who introduced her to Camp Dreamcatcher.
“As you can imagine, all of the younger kids in Taylor know who Virginia is, and they all look up to her. She always made time for them, and each and every time I saw it happen you just knew it made their day.”
During a quiet moment away from the boisterous cafeteria, Kerley reflected on her “once-in-a-lifetime” role at the camp.
“You can see the different obstacles people are going through at such a young age, and it makes you wonder why you take things for granted,” said Kerley, who enrolled this week at Texas A&M, where she will compete in track and field. “What you see here are kids who can only wish they could do things that we’ve done.”
Kerley said her hands-on experience with roughly 100 children at Camp Dreamcatcher has inspired her to do it again in the future — at the same camp or at a similar one where she can dedicate herself to helping youngsters.
Before she arrived at the camp in Burton, Kerley had just completed an impressive run in Taylor.
Most people in her hometown know Kerley as the track and field star who competes in multiple events. In May, she capped her four-year prep career by winning four medals — including a gold in the Class 4A girls 400 meters — at the UIL state meet at Myers Stadium. She also picked up silver medals in the 100 meters and long jump and won a bronze in the triple jump.
All told, she arrives at Texas A&M with nine medals earned at the UIL track and field championships.
On the basketball court, the 5-foot-6 Kerley helped Taylor win more than 80 games during her four varsity seasons. She was named the district newcomer of the year as a freshman and went on to be honored as both a district MVP and the top defensive player in her district.
Taylor girls basketball coach Kris Haney describes Kerley as “probably the best athlete I will ever coach.”
“What set her apart was her ability to impact every game,” Haney said, “whether it was her play on the floor, her leadership on the bench or her mere presence in the gym, which almost always intimidated the opposing team.”
Kerley credits Rickie and Virginia Kerley, the relatives she considers to be her grandparents, for some of her athletic success. They adopted her when she was about 5 years old, and she shared a bedroom with a cousin growing up. Her biological parents, she said, have had little impact on her life.
Also competitive in the classroom, Kerley recalls reading about forensic medicine while still in elementary school. At A&M she plans to major in forensics and investigative sciences.
The youngest of five siblings, Kerley followed her older brothers into athletics. By the time she had reached high school, she already was being touted as a can’t-miss college prospect in at least one sport.
Legendary A&M track coach Pat Henry said it did not take him long to discover that Kerley was athletically gifted.
What was the first indication?
“She’s a Kerley,” Henry said.
Henry has had a pretty good track record with the Kerley family.
Fred Kerley, who recently completed his athletic eligibility at A&M, set an NCAA men’s record in the 400 meters last month before turning professional. He will compete at the world championship this August in London.
Mylik Kerley, a senior next season, helped the Aggies men’s team win the NCAA indoor championship in March. The anchor runner for A&M’s 1,600-meter relay, he passed Florida’s Ryan Clark on the final lap to claim victory.
Then there’s Jeremy Kerley, a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers who’s heading into his seventh NFL season. He’s Virginia Kerley’s first cousin.
Virginia, Henry said, is cut from the same athletic fabric.
“I like the fact that she competes hard, competes to the best of her ability,” Henry said. “With all great competitors, that’s the first attribute you have to have.”
Before heading overseas for a pro meet, Fred Kerley recalled how Virginia participated in numerous sports as a way to stay active.
“For Virginia and all of us, sports has always been something we love to do,” he said, adding that he had never heard his sister boast about her accomplishments.
Although the Kerleys had incredible success as high school athletes, Virginia was the only sibling to win a gold medal at the UIL track and field championships. So did she claim family bragging rights?
“No, I didn’t say anything,” she said. “Whenever I do something, I normally just look forward to what’s next.”
For Kerley, that includes someday being recognized for her individual achievements.
“A lot of people know the name, but I don’t want to be known as just a Kerley,” she said. “I am Virginia Kerley. People would often say, ‘Oh, you’re Fred’s sister,’ or, ‘You’re Mylik’s sister.’ Or they would say, ‘Oh, you’re Jeremy’s cousin.’ No, I am my own person.”
ADDING IT UP
A snapshot look at the Fab 50 — actually, it’s 51 athletes since the list includes a state-champion girls doubles team — selected by the American-Statesman high school sports staff of reporters Rick Cantu and Thomas Jones and editor James Wangemann:
Total schools represented: 32
Schools broken down by classification: UIL Class 6A, 11 (Anderson, Bowie, Hendrickson, Lake Travis, McNeil, Pflugerville, Round Rock, Vandegrift, Vista Ridge, Westlake, Westwood); UIL Class 5A, 10 (Austin High, Cedar Park, Connally, Dripping Springs, East View, Elgin, Georgetown, Hutto, LBJ, Rouse); UIL Class 4A, 6 (Burnet, Giddings, La Grange, Liberty Hill, Taylor, Wimberley); UIL Class 3A, 3 (Jarrell, Lago Vista, Luling); UIL Class 2A, 1 (Granger); TAPPS Class 4A, 1 (St. Michael’s)
Schools with multiple honorees: Lake Travis, 5; Westlake, 5; Dripping Springs, 3; Austin High, 2; Burnet, 2; Cedar Park, 2; Giddings, 2; Lago Vista, 2; Rouse, 2; Taylor, 2; Wimberley, 2
Honorees broken down by grade classification: seniors, 29; juniors, 19; sophomores, 2; freshmen, 1
THE TOP THREE
1. Virginia Kerley;Taylor;basketball, track and field
2. Charlie Brewer;Lake Travis;football
3. Bryanna Hunter;Hendrickson;volleyball, basketball, soccer