This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sandy • Kealia Ohai doesn't get to visit home as much as she'd like to. It has been six years since the former Alta High goal-scorer resided along the Wasatch Front, but she's maintained her bearings. As the 24-year-old stood at the northwest corner of Real Salt Lake's training center, America First Field, she recounted memories from her old stomping grounds.
She pointed north toward Rio Tinto Stadium, where she hopes to make her debut with the U.S. women's national team Wednesday in an international friendly against Switzerland. There, on the pitch inside Rio Tinto, she said, is where she helped raise the last of her four Utah high school state championship trophies. Then she pointed south, toward the direction of her childhood home in Draper.
"Fifteen minutes that way," she said.
Ohai's visit home is already a memorable one. The go-to striker for the Houston Dash in the NWSL a former All-State forward turned NCAA All-American at the University of North Carolina is one of 11 first-time call-ups by U.S. coach Jill Ellis to play for the defending World Cup champions and she isn't the only Utahn on the roster. Ellis also summoned BYU senior forward Ashley Hatch to partake in this camp ahead of the back-to-back friendlies against Switzerland, first here in Sandy on Wednesday and next on Sunday in Minneapolis.
The purpose of these friendlies? "Deepening our player pool and finding players that we're going to invest in for these next two years," said U.S. midfielder and World Cup veteran Tobin Heath. "It's an important time for this team to grow, and obviously, we lost a number of players these last two cycles."
Ohai and Hatch, fellow strikers but strangers before this camp, hope to be part of the not-so-distant future. The paths to their first call-ups were divergent.
Ohai is a former No. 2 pick in the NWSL Draft, scored 11 goals for the Dash in 2016 and was a league MVP finalist this year. Hatch has paced the No. 6-ranked Cougars with 15 goals and four assists and is one of three players summoned from the college ranks for this camp.
"There's a lot of emotions, you know?" Hatch said. "A lot of excitement, a lot of nerves just super anxious to come out here and just play with the best."
Last month, BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood pulled her team's leading scorer into her office before practice one day. Ellis had called to ask about Hatch.
The senior from Gilbert, Ariz., was floored. "Just kind of shocked," she said. Then, after being informed that she was to be called up in the coming weeks, she had to go out to practice and pretend like that conversation had never happened.
"I wake up every morning and I come to breakfast with them and I'm like, 'Wow,'" Hatch said. "These girls are awesome. It's really cool just to rub shoulders with them."
While the call-up for the BYU star was a surprise, Ohai's was a long time coming, according to Heath. The national team was a goal Ohai always thought was attainable. She needed to produce with the Dash in order to keep her name on the radar in a positional group that is arguably the deepest in the country with the likes of Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," Ohai said. "It's difficult. There's so many quality players in our league and in this country, there's so many girls to choose from. You really do have to do something special to get called in, and I knew that and I understood that."
There's no guarantee Ohai or Hatch will be in the starting lineup or on the game-day lineup card for Ellis Wednesday against the Swiss. The Utahns said they're trying to lean on the advice doled out by Heath and other veterans like Morgan Brian and Becky Sauerbrunn: Avoid anxiousness.
"That's the hardest thing coming into camp because we follow this team, we know all these girls and we look up to them," Ohai said. "If you get called, be ready."
Both Ohai and Hatch are expected to have their share of fanfare Wednesday evening regardless of playing time. Ohai's family reserved a suite for the match, while friends and family from Houston are flying into town. Friends from Alta will be there, including legendary prep soccer coach Lee Mitchell.
It will be much the same for Hatch. Her parents will be in the stands. The entire BYU women's soccer team is expected to be in attendance supporting their leading scorer.
"I hope they are enjoying it," Heath said. "I hope they're able to put those nerves aside and show why they should be there and prove themselves."
USA vs. Switzerland
P At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV » ESPN2
Radio » None
U.S. at Rio Tinto » The team's fourth visit in Sandy (2010, 2012, 2014), where the U.S. is 3-0-0
U.S. women's national team roster
Goalkeepers » Jane Campbell (Stanford), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
Defenders » Abby Dahlkemper (Western New York Flash), Arin Gilliland (Chicago Red Stars), Merritt Mathias (Seattle Reign), Kelley O'Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns FC)
Midfielders » Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Danielle Colaprico (Chicago Red Stars), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Samantha Mewis (Western New York Flash), Andi Sullivan (Stanford)
Forwards » Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Shea Groom (FC Kansas City), Ashley Hatch (BYU), Kealia Ohai (Houston Dash), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Lynn Williams (Western New York Flash)