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Photo courtesy Utah Royals FC
Utah Royals FC rookie Michelle Maemone defends the Washington Spirit's Mallory Pugh on Saturday, April 20, 2019 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. In her first game as a professional, Maemone got the start despite dealing with illness.

SANDY — How’s this for the start of a career?

Picked 23rd of 36 selections in the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League draft out of Pepperdine, it stood to reason that Utah Royals FC rookie Michelle Maemone would have a hard time making an early impact. Beside being drafted where she was in a league in which even top picks have a hard time breaking in, the defender was joining a URFC back line that is full of players who will appear in this summer’s World Cup, as well as veteran outside back Becca Moros.

But because of injuries to Moros and United States Women’s National Team star Kelley O’Hara, Maemone was told by coaches a few days prior to last Saturday’s season opener against the Washington Spirit that she’d be starting at outside back, with New Zealand star Katie Bowen opposite her and Becky Sauerbrunn (USWNT captain) and Rachel Corsie (Scotland captain) at center back.

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. OK,’” she recalled Wednesday.

The adventure was only beginning.

On Friday, the day before the game, Maemone was running a fever of 101 degrees and therefore was stuck in bed as URFC had its final training session before the opener. By game time Saturday, she still had a fever, but gave it a go.

“That was pretty difficult, but I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to go out there and at least give everything that I do have,’ and I feel like I was able to do that,” she said Wednesday, her voice still reduced to a whisper because of laryngitis. “I’m just so grateful that I got the opportunity to play. Just really awesome.”

Despite her illness, Maemone wanted to live up to a promise she made to some of her teammates during preseason.

“I was telling the girls during preseason, ‘I don’t know when my time is going to come,’ ‘cause you don’t as a rookie. You never know, but I wanted to be prepared for when my time did come, and it came a lot sooner than I thought it was going to, but man, I’m so grateful. It was really amazing,” she said.

Maemone expressed how honored she’s been to play alongside “the best defenders in the world,” and gave particular credit to O’Hara for taking her under her wing.

“I was so humbled when I was drafted, and then when I showed up here to preseason and I’m playing with these girls, it’s even that much more humbling, and then playing in the home opener with these girls was just the ultimate dream come true,” she said. “I can’t even sum it up. I can’t. It’s pretty cool.”

This Saturday on the road against the Orlando Pride, URFC will play in its final game before O’Hara (who came on for Maemone in the 61st minute last weekend), Sauerbrunn and forward Christen Press are expected to leave to prepare for the World Cup. Corsie and Bowen are also primed to depart in the coming weeks, meaning Maemone will surely see plenty of playing time moving forward (Moros did not travel to Orlando).

“You don’t just want to throw people in when it’s just the World Cup time,” URFC head coach Laura Harvey said. “If you can get them time prior to, that it’s great.”

World Cup time or not, though, Harvey and her staff were confident Maemone would perform well in the opener.

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“Playing in this league is so different from college, but she just showed so many good things in preseason that we didn’t feel it was a risk,” Harvey said. “It just felt like she deserved the opportunity.”

Corsie seconded that thought.

“It was a great experience for her to get her first game under her belt and she’s only going to get better from here,” Corsie said. “She’s done so well so far. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, but that’s why she’s here, because she’s got the right attitude. We’ve loved it so far. She fits in with the group and she’s doing great.”