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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Kealia Ohai

To: Alta High School faculty

Dear teachers:

I am writing in behalf of one of your students — Kealia Ohai (say it KAY-lee-uh O-hi). Please, excuse her from class. She has extracurricular activities that will take her, well, who knows how far — the Olympics?

She says her teachers are frustrated and upset about her many absences. As she puts it, "I try to explain why I miss so much school, but my teachers don't really understand."

Allow me to explain. Kealia is a soccer phenom, a prodigy, the real deal. She's been told for years that she could be the next Mia Hamm and an Olympian. She's 17.

She's considered the No. 1 soccer recruit in the country for the Class of 2010. Imagine that — a little (5-foot-5) girl from Utah, No. 1! Usually, that title is reserved for Californians.

She hasn't even finished her junior year yet, and the intense recruiting war for her services has already been fought and won. More than 300 schools pursued her. And the winner is: the University of North Carolina, which is to women's soccer what USC is to football.

Kealia has been a member of age-group national teams since she was 14. She's currently one of the two youngest members of the under-20 national team. Talk about a sweet life. It's a teen's dream. She flew to Spain recently to participate in a two-week camp that included games against France, Germany and Norway.

This would be the trip of a lifetime for most kids; it's routine stuff for this kid. She spent two weeks at a soccer camp in Costa Rica when she was 15. She has played soccer in Brazil and New Zealand. She's played throughout the U.S., including Boston, New York, Washington, Oregon, Florida, New Jersey, California, Hawaii — most of them several times.

People see this tiny young girl with the pale green eyes and long reddish brown hair alone on an airplane headed overseas, and inevitably they ask, "Where's your family? What are you doing?" Oh, I play soccer.

This is how routine exotic travel is for her: She turned down a winter trip to Hawaii two years ago — she was tired of the travel.

"It's fun and I love it, but it's not like a vacation," she says. "I'm jealous when my friends go on family vacations. I never have time to travel with my family."

Opportunities keep coming to Kealia because of her precociousness on the soccer field. The first time she played the game, she scored 18 goals. Yeah, 18! That's no typo. She was 4 years old, playing in a league of 5-year-olds. "We had no clue before that," says her father Ben, a teacher at Cottonwood High. "They had to take her out of the game."

And so it began. Each week it was the same story: Parents from the other team would beg them to take Kealia out of the game. She was too fast, too coordinated and just too much for the other kids. It wasn't fair. It was like trying to guard a collie.

She plays the game as if someone hit the fast forward button whenever she touches the ball. She can dribble the ball almost as fast as she can run without a ball, and that's saying something. She placed fourth in the 100-meter dash at last spring's state track and field championships despite training only rarely (I know this first-hand because I coach the Alta track team).

In three years of high school soccer competition, she has collected three state championships, three scoring titles, three All-State awards, 93 goals, two state MVP awards, and one Gatorade Player of the Year award. Alta has lost just three games since Kealia joined the team. Oh, and about that MVP award she didn't win as a freshman — her sister Megan won it instead. Megan started for USC's NCAA championship team two years ago as a freshman.

As you might expect, collegiate coaches were falling all over themselves trying to sign Kealia. She made official recruiting visits to three soccer powers — USC, Portland and North Carolina. She scheduled another visit to UCLA, but she never got that far. North Carolina, which has won 20 of 27 national soccer championships, laid it on pretty thick during Kealia's visit last month. Anson Dorrance, the Tar Heels' legendary coach, showed her the campus, took her to a UNC-Georgia Tech men's basketball game and then showed her a video that featured former UNC athletes, among them Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan, while James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind" played in the background.

"North Carolina is your home, Kealia; come home," Dorrance told her, going for poetry. "Do you want to be a Tar Heel?"

"Yes," she answered.

Her family almost fell off their chairs. "I was shocked," says Ben. "I asked her earlier in the day what she was thinking and all she said was, 'You'll see.' "

Coaches agree that Kealia has a strong work ethic, but, let's face it, she's got the genes. Her mother, Cindy, has the body of a petite athletic teenager and never exercises.

"For as little as she is, she's super strong," says Ben. "I've seen her pick up a couch and move it."

Ben was a football MVP as a California prep and an All-American wrestler at BYU. That union produced three athletic daughters — Cammy, Megan and Kealia.

"I know they have athletic ability," says Ben, "but they have huge hearts; they hate to lose. They have a burning desire to win."

Ask Alta coach Lee Mitchell what makes Kealia so special, and he says, "That's the million-dollar question. It's hard work, God-given talent, and she has an aptitude for knowing where to be for the ball and to go to it. She is constantly moving in a game, which makes it difficult to defend her. Her pace of the game is a lot quicker than other players, and she can handle the ball at a speed most kids can't achieve without the ball. Just look at her legs compared to the other kids. They're very muscular."

Lone Peak coach Mike LaHargoue once said of Kealia, "She's all over the place (on the field) ... It's not fun to coach against her, but it is fun to watch her. These kinds of kids just don't come around very often."

If all this attention is going to Kealia's head, she's doing an Oscar-worthy act of pretending otherwise. She's an 'A' student who urges reporters to do stories on teammates instead of her. When she learned that she was going to be named to the All-State team as a freshman, she told her father that she wished one of her senior teammates had gotten the honor instead because their career was ending. She squirms when members of Alta's boys team tease her about her state MVP status in front of her teammates.

"When my mother was sick (with a serious illness), Kealia and Megan used to come over to visit with her in the stands before every game," says senior teammate Jenny McCune. "It made me love them."

In a little more than a year, Kealia will be going to Carolina to test her skills at the next level. So remember the girl with the memorable game and name (Ben, who lived in Hawaii as a boy, named her after a Hawaiian beach).

"At each level, she's raised her game," says Mitchell. "When she needs to turn it up a level, she can do that. I don't think I've seen her play at her best yet."

E-MAIL: drob@desnews.com