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Doug Robinson: Ohai coming back home for NCAA showdown with Cougars

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 20 2012 7:03 p.m. MST

Former Alta High soccer star Kealia Ohai (7) scored the winning U.S. goal in their U20 Women's World Cup win.

Associated Press

Ben Ohai — Soccer Dad and school teacher — has just about drained his bank account to follow his daughter's soccer exploits. Kealia Ohai is one of the most promising young soccer stars in the country, and everywhere she goes Ben is in her wake.

This year he has flown to Japan for two weeks to watch her play in the Junior World Cup and made repeated trips to Chapel Hill, N.C., where Kealia stars on the University of North Carolina soccer team. Over the years, he has traveled all over the country to see her play and does it on a teacher's salary.

"I'm just barely making it, barely keeping my head above water," he says. "What else can you do? It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Fortunately, Ohai caught a break. This week he will have to travel only 30 miles to see Kealia play. On Friday night at 6 p.m., 14th-ranked North Carolina will play No. 2-ranked BYU in Provo in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The game is expected to be a sellout.

"It's a big reunion," says Ben, a history teacher at Cottonwood High. "Kealia has played with or against almost every girl on that BYU team, and I have traveled with many of those parents to club games all over the country for years."

It's the biggest soccer game in BYU history, matching the Cougars against Ohai and the most renowned soccer program and coach in the game. Coach Anson Dorrance has collected 21 national collegiate championships at North Carolina, not to mention the women's first World Cup on the side, in 1991.

This was what the Cougars were up against when they recruited Kealia, who, as a senior at Alta High, was considered the No. 1 recruit in the country.

Kealia has BYU connections. Not only does she know many of the BYU players and grew up just up the freeway from the school, but her father is a BYU alum. Ben was recruited for football and wrestling by the Cougars. He wound up becoming a two-time All-American wrestler (second- and third-place finishes in the NCAA championships) and a two-time Western Athletic Conference champion at 190 pounds.

He and his wife Cindy bore three athletic daughters — Cami, Megan and Kealia. Megan and Kealia became soccer superstars almost the minute they stepped on the field. For her part, Kealia scored 18 goals in her first soccer game, at the age of 4. Each week, parents on the opposing team begged Kealia's coaches to take her out of games. Both Kealia and Megan were named 5A MVPs in high school.

BYU never had a chance to sign them. Having traveled the world throughout their youth with the Olympic development program, they had determined years earlier that they wanted to go to school out of state.

Megan chose USC, where she was a four-year starter and played on the Trojans' 2007 NCAA championship team. In 2008, USC met BYU in Provo in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Locked at 1-1 at the end of regulation, the game was decided by a penalty-kick shootout — with Megan kicking the winning goal.

Then came Kealia's turn to choose a school. More than 300 schools pursued her. "I didn't want to stay in Utah," she says. "I knew that for sure."

She planned three official campus visits to USC, UCLA and North Carolina. She signed with North Carolina and canceled the other visits.

Kealia was a freshman All-American and led the Heels in scoring. This year she tied for the team lead in goals scored despite missing six games to play in the junior World Cup in Japan, where she kicked the winning goal against Germany in the championship game. This fall she appeared in Sports Illustrated's Faces In the Crowd, which boasted, "Ohai, a junior forward at North Carolina, opened the scoring in a 6-1 win over Miami (Fla.) by taking a defensive clearance and sprinting 65 yards, past four defenders, to launch a shot from the top of the box into the upper-right corner of the net … Last month Ohai scored in the U.S.'s U-20 World Cup semifinal win over Nigeria (2-0) and kicked the team's lone goal to defeat Germany in the final."

A week ago, Ben asked Kealia where she would prefer to play the Elite Eight game — in North Carolina against Marquette or in Utah against BYU? She said Provo and then got her wish. This will mark the first time she has played in Utah since graduating from high school. It also marks the first time North Carolina has played a soccer match here.

Among those cheering for Kealia will be Megan, who recently had a baby with husband Brian Cushing (a linebacker with the Houston Texans) and is traveling from Houston to see the game.

"It's going to be fun," says Kealia. "Family and friends will be there. All my old soccer coaches and teammates have been calling for tickets. Everyone is trying to get in there."

BYU has become a national title contender since Ohai graduated from high school. The Cougars are 20-1-2 this season and ranked only behind Stanford. Their players are all familiar to Kealia, which enabled her to contribute some to the scouting report.

"The coaches asked me a little about the players and about the altitude," she says. "They're a little worried about the altitude, but I don't think it will be a factor."

After watching video of BYU's win over Marquette last week, Kealia notes, "They're a really good team. They did awesome this year. We think our styles of play will match up."

email: drob@desnews.com

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