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Alta alums shine in women’s professional soccer

Jul 25, 2018 01:34PM ● Published by Ron Bevan

Former Alta phenom Kealia Ohai now plays for the Houston Dash. She has also played for the US Women’s National team, where she holds the record for the fastest debut goal. (Photo courtesy Houston Dash)

By Ron Bevan | r.bevan@mycityjournals.com

The addition of the Utah Royals not only means women’s professional soccer is now played in Sandy, but also that two home-grown athletes can be seen on the pitch once again. And both came not just through the halls of Alta High School, but at one time were also teammates. 

Kealia Ohai and Michele Vasconcelos both sported the red and white colors of Alta High School. Ohai is now a member of the Houston Dash and Vasconcelos plays for the Chicago Red Stars, teams in the National Women’s Soccer League and competition to the Royals. Although Ohai was older than Vasconcelos, the two did team up for two of Alta’s eight girls soccer titles while in high school. Vasconcelos was then known as Michele Murphy.

Perhaps the best known of the duo is Ohai, who has been a force on national teams since she was a teenager. She made the U15 national team and kept playing on different teams representing the United States worldwide. She even scored the winning goal over Germany in the 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup. 

The international competition was a far cry for a young girl growing up in Draper, Utah. Ohai’s soccer career began when she was just 4 years old.

“Both my older sisters played so I would go watch them,” Ohai said. “I began playing every day. Soccer has been my whole life.” 

She played club soccer for Avalanche, even while representing both Alta and the US, keeping her soccer calendar full week in and week out. Sacrifices had to be made both on the club level and then on the high school level whenever Ohai was needed nationally. 

But while she was busy representing the US, Ohai didn’t want to miss out on her high school years. She still attended Alta and played on the high school team that won an unprecedented four straight state soccer titles. She did miss some Alta regular season games due to her national commitments, but made sure she was around for the state playoffs. 

Chicago Red Star forward Michele Vasconcelos was on three championship teams at Alta High School when she was Michele Murphy. (Photo by Dan Bartel, ISI Photos)

“I got called into the national camp once and it was at a time where we had a big game for Alta,” Ohai said. “They let me stay for the game and come to camp late. I grew up watching Alta soccer. I just always wanted to go there and play there. It was such an honor to be able to play at Alta.” 

Besides being perfect in championships her entire high school career, Ohai also earned two Gatorade State Player of the Year honors, three 5A Soccer MVP awards and was also the 2010 NSCAA National High School player of the year. 

“(Ohai) deserved every recognition she received,” Alta coach Lee Mitchell said. “Her feel for the game and also her ability on the ball are better than most any player out there. She gets the ball on her foot and knows what to do with it.” 

Ohai moved on to play for North Carolina in the collegiate ranks, and helped the Tar Heels win the NCAA title in 2012. 

She was the second overall pick of the 2014 NWSL draft, landing with the Houston Dash. She scored 11 goals in 10 games during the 2016 season to earn her first captains band for the Dash. Also that year, she got her first call up to the US Women’s National team. 

Although she was on the team that played a friendly at Rio Tinto Stadium, Ohai didn’t see action in that game. Instead, she appeared for the first time for the US national team Oct. 23, 2016 in a game versus Switzerland. Just 48 seconds after entering the match, Ohai took a pass and put it into the back of the net, setting a record for the fastest goal in a debut for the US women’s national team.

“Making the women’s national team was a dream of mine for so long,” Ohai said. “I cried when I first got called up. It was bittersweet not to actually play in the game at Rio Tinto, but I was excited to be there. So many memories of that field.” 

Ohai got to return to Rio Tinto this season as a member of the Houston Dash, playing against the Royals. 

“I love that stadium,” Ohai said. “To play there again in front of my entire family and friends was incredible.”

Vasconcelos took a slightly different path to her professional debut. Unlike Ohai, Vasconcelos never pursued the Olympic training teams and consequently didn’t get the national recognition.

“It took Murph (Vasconcelos’ nickname in high school) a little longer to develop,” Mitchell said. “But she works so hard. She always has. She comes from a family that has great ability in the game of soccer. Her older brothers and sister played for Alta.”

Vasconcelos grew up on the soccer fields of Sandy, playing for club teams Avalanche and then Olympic Montreaux. And although her older family members played soccer at Alta, she was pretty young when they played and had to forge her own path in soccer. 

“I was 5 years old when I began playing soccer,” Vasoncelos said. “My closest sibling is 12 years older than me, so they had me playing as soon as I could walk.”

From the recreation leagues to the competition teams, Vasconcelos began on her journey that would land her a position on the varsity team at Alta as a freshman. She teamed with Ohai for the final two titles of the four-peat. 

But two rings weren’t enough for Vasconcelos. She stormed her way through the 5A ranks her senior season, scoring 38 goals including the winning shot that beat Viewmont in the 2011 title match and gave her a third ring. 

From there she went on to lead BYU’s women’s team, where she would rack up 32 career collegiate goals and 30 assists. She was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year her senior season and was a four-time All-WCC selection while at BYU. 

Her abilities were noticed by the professional teams, and the Red Stars made her the 11th pick of the 2017 NWSL draft. At the time, Red Stars coach Rory Dames called her the best wing player in the draft, and even hinted she had a shot at Rookie of the Year honors. 

But all that would have to be put on hold. On draft day, Vasconcelos was on a trip to Brazil with her husband Pedro, whom she met while he was also playing soccer at BYU. She wasn’t feeling well and at first attributed it to eating foreign food or perhaps the travel. It wasn’t until she came back to Utah that she found out why. 

“I found out I was pregnant,” Vasconcelos said. And her dreams of playing for the Red Stars had to wait. 

But the wait wasn’t long. She was ready the next season, working herself back into top-tier athletic shape in a matter of months. 

“It is incredible that she has had a baby and is still so fast,” Ohai said of her former teammate. “I am so proud of her for how she is doing. She is not just a great player, but a great person as well.” 

Vasconcelos’ Red Stars were the first team to play the Royals in their inaugural season at Rio Tinto Stadium. Walking into the Sandy arena as a professional brought back a lot of memories for her. 

“I teared up a little in my very first game for Chicago, but playing at Rio Tinto with my family and friends in attendance was way more emotional,” Vasconcelos said. “It is the stadium I won my state titles, so it will always be a special place for me. 

When she is on the field representing the Red Stars, Vasconcelos also remembers she is still representing Alta. 

“Whenever I think of Alta soccer, the first word that comes to my mind is pride,” Vasconcelos said. “I am very proud that I was part of the history at Alta.”

 

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